Happy Babble

Christopher Prendergast

  • Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton by Mark Polizzotti
    Bloomsbury, 754 pp, £25.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 7475 1281 7

Imagine a ‘movement’, not retrospectively constructed by the tidy, potty-trained minds of academics, but consciously created by its actors with a view to putting an end to the culture of potty-training (perhaps one of the meanings of Duchamp’s notorious urinal). Surrealism was such a creature. It was a ‘movement’ in the sense of having a whole apparatus: committees, bureaux, meetings, manifestos, publicity, recruits, sectarian disputes, purges, punch-ups and, of course, in André Breton, a leader. Its proclaimed goal was the liberation of ‘man’ from the chains of the super-ego and of ‘life’ from the constraints of the reality-principle (‘reality’, Breton wrote in one of his many lofty pronouncements, was ‘a miserable mental expedient’). Almost permanently divided within itself, the movement proclaimed an end to division and the transcendence of contraries and contradictions in a new life-emancipating harmony, ‘a leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom; in the sense that contemporary man, full of contradictions and lacking in harmony, will pave the way for a newer, happier race.’

In fact, this was a quotation from Trotsky’s definition of socialism (reproduced in La Planète sans visa, the document drawn up in 1934 as a declaration of solidarity with Trotsky against the Stalinist line of the French Communist Party), but it can stand mutatis mutandis as a statement of the Surrealist ideal. Its concern with the overcoming of division did not extend, as it did in Trotsky’s writings, to a serious concern with the consequences of the division of labour (which is one reason the ‘politics’ of Surrealism is such a paltry affair: ‘toilet-paper revolutionaries’ was how Artaud described Breton and his colleagues). Although there was much talk of the ‘body’ in Surrealist discourse, it was generally the body of sex (especially the fetishised body), rarely the body of work. What excited the Surrealists above all was the possibility of harmonious adjustment of the adventures of the psyche and its artistic transmission. In a lecture he gave in Prague in 1935, Breton claimed that ‘we have succeeded in dialectically reconciling these two terms – perception and representation – that are so violently contradictory for the adult man.’ Had this been true, we could have said that the Hegelian dream of the homecoming in a higher synthesis of the estranged Geist had become a reality (Breton was an enthusiastic reader of Hegel), a Surrealist form of the end of history.

Certainly there was never a moment’s doubt that the dream was susceptible of realisation. The most famous enunciation of this belief was the Second manifeste du surréalisme: ‘all the evidence tends to the idea that there exists a certain point in the mind from the perspective of which life and death, the real and the imaginary, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low cease to be perceived as contradictory.’ A belief of this type is not characteristic of our own dystopian times, and we are unlikely to want to join the Surrealists in the journey towards the alleged ‘point’. There are many reasons why this might be so, not all of them particularly creditable. If we are not energised by the Surrealist ambition, this stems in large measure from the peculiar and paradoxical fatigue of a culture simultaneously Post-Modern and fin-de-siècle, in which, by virtue of the former, even the ennui of the latter appears as a simulacrum of the real thing, a belated coming to belatedness itself. If such conditions are not propitious for Surrealist imaginings, that is the fault of the conditions, not of Surrealism.

There are, however, other reasons of a more robustly sceptical sort why we might find Surrealism uncongenial. There is no question that, in many of its activities, Surrealism was flamboyantly and disruptively creative, most notably in the sphere of the visual arts. Picasso (who associated intermittently but sympathetically with the movement), Duchamp and Man Ray altered the landscape of visual representation in major ways. But the real achievement of its self-styled leader (the subject of Mark Polizzotti’s biography) is questionable. It is difficult not to find oneself writing biliously about so self-righteously bilious a man as André Breton. It is perhaps no accident – another way of formulating Breton’s opaque notion of ‘objective chance’ – that his favourite colour was green. He wore green suits, shirts and sunglasses. This was not in emulation of Oscar Wilde. He detested the primacy accorded to art over life, and detested homosexuals even more. Paul Claudel, the Catholic writer-diplomat, undiplomatically called the Surrealists a bunch of ‘pederasts’. Breton was outraged, not only because in his own case it was inaccurate, but because, for someone who shared Claudel’s homophobic views, it was unambiguously an insult. (Many years later he echoed Claudel in describing the New York avant-garde magazine View as ‘pederasty international’.)

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