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’.)

Green for Breton was a way of being imposing, often literally (Polizzotti tells us that at the café where the members of the group regularly met Breton insisted that Surrealist correctness required the consumption of green foods and liqueurs only, and that for the ‘prosecution’ of Salvador Dalí he was dressed in bottle-green from head to foot). It may also have had something to do with Breton’s lifelong attachment to magic. The ink he used was turquoise, and Naville spoke of it as ‘that prairie-coloured ink that took the place of a magic potion’. The whole Surrealist project as defined and shaped by Breton could be described as an attempt to restore magical modes of thought to a world dominated and aetiolated by the techno-rationality of modernity. He attacked science, co-authored L’Art magique (unable to write it on his own, he attributed writer’s block to the influence of a voodoo doll staring at him from his study shelf), was keen on astrology and went in for séances. In these terms, Surrealism is one of the chapters in the prolonged ‘trial of the Enlightenment’, a moment in the essentially rearguard action to re-enchant the disenchanted world. Although it saw itself as the bearer of revolution – a key term in the titles of both its principal journal (La Révolution surréaliste) and Polizzotti’s book – ‘revolution’ is in fact a misnomer. The rhetoric was forward-looking, but the logic was reactive; for all the talk of discovery, shock of the new and so forth, the real object of the Surrealist quest was a lost object of thought and imagination: what they called the ‘marvellous’ (the organising category of the first Manifeste du surréalisme).

In this respect, the origins of Surrealism are firmly rooted in the traditions issuing from European Romanticism – the German philosophers, the writer Novalis, and later the utopian social thinker, Fourier (Breton composed an ode to Fourier while driving around the Nevada desert). This backward turn can also be seen in Breton’s passionate devotion to Celtism. He saw a historical conspiracy to inflict ‘Latin logic’ on civilisation, refused ever to set foot in Italy or Greece and, like some latter-day Chateaubriand, found a new dawn in the Celtic twilight. Alternatively, magical inspiration was to be found in the thought and practices of ‘primitive’ societies. Breton avidly collected non-Western art, but, unlike Leiris, who developed a reflexive anthropology from his encounters with other cultures, he had no real understanding of the societies from which the works of art came. While in Nevada he visited Hopi and Zuni reservations, blithely unaware that, as Polizzotti puts it, ‘to the Indians he was just another tourist.’ While in Haiti he gave an interview in which he claimed that ‘there are very deep affinities between so-called “primitive” thought and Surrealist thought: both want to overthrow the hegemony of consciousness and daily life.’ This positively retarded stuff shows that he learnt nothing from his New York conversations with Lévi-Strauss who, ironically, had been instrumental in arranging the trip. Moreover, the declared ‘affinities’ went only so far. Breton did not merely collect primitive art, he also stole it. In the Twenties he defended Malraux’s theft of artefacts from a Cambodian temple as an ‘unimportant theft’ from ‘an all but unknown temple’ and many years later in Mexico proceeded to copy him: while looking round a village church with Trotsky, he was much taken with a collection of votive plates built up over generations by the local population; Trotsky was appalled to see him slipping half a dozen under his jacket.

One problem (among others) with a belief in magic as an escape from that miserable mental expedient, reality, is that it can engender fantasies of omnipotence. With many Bretonian pronouncements it is difficult to figure out whether we are dealing with a rhetorical trope or a literal declaration. For example, he wrote that were we, in the conditions of the Surrealist utopia, simply to think of horses galloping over fields of uncrushed tomatoes, this state of affairs would come about. It is an odd way of illustrating utopia, but, more to the point, it is unclear whether it was meant as an actual prophecy. Since for Breton metaphor smacked of ‘literature’ (trope being replaced in Surrealism by a theory of the ‘image’ as bypassing stylistic mediation to achieve an effect of pure immediacy), we have to conclude, against the grain of plausibility, that he did mean it literally.

There was no stopping Breton in this sort of thing. Magic and prophecy (of a peculiarly retroactive sort) also presided over his amours. Breton maintained, over and over again, that his great loves were ‘predestined’. This was more than a variant of the seductive commonplace whereby two lovers, in the first happy flush of desire, come to feel that it was all meant to be. With a highly developed semiotic alertness, and the benefit of hindsight, Breton saw in the circumstances of first encounters all manner of annunciatory signs (‘like some vague private horoscope’, in Polizzotti’s words). When he met Jacqueline Lamba, for example, she was working as an underwater dancer at the Coliseum music hall. Naturally, Jacqueline’s watery work led Breton to think of her as a mermaid. But the association was overdetermined by the fact that a few days previously in a restaurant he had overheard the name of the waitress who was serving him (Ondine), and was much struck that he should have encountered that name in a place where one dines (on dîne). Geddit? From there it was but a step to weaving a whole skein of the ‘marvellous’, providentially geared to ensuring his encounter with the undine-like Jacqueline.

Even more revealing is the tale of the woman who called herself Nadja (and who gave her name to what is, along with L’Amour fou, perhaps Breton’s most widely read book). This was another instance of the wonders of objective chance (a crossing of paths on the streets of Paris). Nadja was a lost soul, without visible means of support, a drifter obliged to turn a trick or two when the going got really rough. Breton instantly converted her into a metaphysical fiction, but as she grew more and more attached to him, he grew tired of her conversation and worried about the extent of her claims on his wallet. He soon ditched her; alone and poverty-stricken, she went insane and ended up in the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital. Since Breton was as keen on madness as he was on magic (its liberating potential is one of the principal themes of La Conception immaculée and of the essay on the art of the mad, ‘Art of the Insane: Freedom to Roam Abroad’), he naturally complimented her on her existentially exemplary condition. At the same time he refused to visit her, perhaps because of the ‘horror’ he once confessed he felt before ‘mental pathology’ (he also refused to visit Artaud when he was confined). Remarkably, he had at one point considered becoming a psychoanalyst.

Breton didn’t visit Nadja, but he wrote about her: etherealised and spectralised (‘one of those spirits of the air which certain magical practices momentarily permit us to entertain’), she is written about entirely in terms of Breton’s own fantasy-needs, as pure projection. This was par for the course. One of the Surrealist capers was a programme of ‘sexual research’. Some of the writers and artists associated with Surrealism, notably Bataille and Duchamp, undertook complex investigations into sexual desire. Breton’s contribution to the sexual research group consisted mainly of a list of his dislikes, which included (I quote from Polizzotti’s account): ‘black women (too prone to having babies, he felt), women who didn’t speak French, women who farted in his presence’. He also treated the group to his enlightened view of sexual partnership: ‘If I desire a woman, it doesn’t matter to me whether she comes or not.’ This doesn’t look much like research. In later life he tried a more upbeat view of the ‘feminine’, but in terms that compounded rather than alleviated the problem. In Arcane 17 he made the shattering discovery that woman was the key to it all (‘the idea of earthly salvation via woman’), but the key consisted of another version of the ewig Weibliche, what he called the ‘child-woman’, close to the earth or rather the sea (returning to the mermaid figure, he incarnated the feminine principle in the water sprite, Mélusine). Marie Bonaparte spoke of Breton’s ‘narcissistic overestimation of the Self’. ‘He saw in me what he wanted to see,’ Jacqueline Lamba said of him, ‘but he didn’t really see me.’ There are many other remarks of this sort about Breton by women. Breton himself complained that it was the other way round; when objective chance failed to kick in the right way, he wrote a ‘love’ poem with the lines: ‘You see the women you have loved/Without them seeing you.’

In Nadja Breton records (‘as neutrally as possible’, in Polizzotti’s nicely understated gloss) that his heroine ‘takes me for a god, she thinks of me as the sun.’ On a childhood visit to a cemetery he came across a gravestone with the words NEITHER GOD NOR MASTER. He claimed that this impressed him no end (‘I will never forget the sense of release, exaltation and pride’). But in his dealings as leader of the Surrealist movement, he came pretty close to arrogating divine authority to himself, rapidly acquiring the sobriquet ‘Pope of Surrealism’. He ruled the Surrealist coterie like an autocratic bully. According to Lionel Abel, he once said: ‘I am Surrealism.’ Absolute loyalty was de rigueur. One thing for which he was supremely gifted was rage. His rages were often incandescent, sometimes over entirely trivial matters – he ‘exploded’ when Roger Caillois suggested cutting open some Mexican jumping beans with which the group was playing. When not exploding, he could display a ludicrously obstinate petulance; after the war he bumped into Picasso at Golfe-Juan and demanded to be taken without delay to the painter’s studio. When Picasso pleaded for a postponement on the not unreasonable grounds that he had toothache and was on his way to the dentist, Breton would have none of it: ‘now or never,’ he said. Picasso got on his bike and pedalled off to the dentist and out of a friendship.

‘Pope’ was not in fact quite the right term. More appropriate would be ‘grand inquisitor’. A more secular analogy would be with the dreaded prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal, Fouquier-Tinville, to whom one of Breton’s colleagues once compared him. Matthew Josephson described him as resembling ‘one of the old Jacobin leaders’. The real give-away came from Breton himself: denouncing Tzara, he observed that ‘it would not be a bad thing to re-institute the laws of the Terror for the things of the mind.’ Those who, over the years, came and went, for the most part at Breton’s imperious diktat, included Soupault, Artaud, Aragon, Tzara, Bataille, Leiris, Queneau, Prévert, Desnos, Masson, Eluard, Ernst, Man Ray, Crevel, Giacometti, Dalí, Caillois, Char. Much of the Second manifeste du surréalisme is devoted to justifying these exclusions. For it was a matter not just of Breton’s tight-lipped intransigence but also of his insistence that the excommunications and expulsions be publicly declared. Giacometti was given his cards with a ‘public notice’; according to Maurice Nadeau, Eluard was ‘publicly branded an enemy’.

And so it went on. Something of a double standard was at work in all this. Always the accuser, Breton could not tolerate being himself subjected to the judgment of others. ‘He would not allow himself to stand accused,’ remarked the philosopher Pastoureau. When Naville complained that Breton was not pulling his weight in running the implausible Bureau of Surrealist Research, he promptly offered his resignation from Surrealism – tricky for someone who is supposed to have said he was Surrealism. There was also a fair amount of outright hypocrisy. Any implication in the institutions of culture was seen as close to original sin. Surrealists were expelled simply because they tried to make a living. But this did not prevent Breton from pestering Gaston Gallimard over publications, contracts and royalties or from dabbling, rather successfully, in the art market. Nor did it prevent him sending a dedicated copy of one of his books for review to Léon Daudet of the extreme right-wing newspaper Action française. Perhaps we would see all this differently if Breton had left behind a significant body of literary work. As a writer, his main claim to fame is bound up with the invention of écriture automatique. Psychic automatism and its expression in automatic writing were deemed to pave the royal road to the ‘point’ where contradictions evaporate. For this he appropriated the authority of Freud, in one of the more grotesque intellectual mis-encounters of the 20th century and on the basis of a misreading so radical that Freud himself, faced with Breton’s various overtures, was simply bemused. He declined, for instance, to participate in a publication on dreams, informing Breton that ‘the superficial aspect of dreams, what I call the manifest dream, holds no interest for me.’ Breton’s devotion to automatism meant that he was interested only in the manifest content of dreams and other forms of unconscious life. For him the unconscious was a transparent window onto the desiring substratum of the mind and the transcription of its happy babble the function of its written representations.

More seriously, in Les Champs magnétiques, the main source for Breton’s experiments with automatism, he cheated, revising and editing for publication the text written with Soupault in quasi-hypnotic circumstances, in such a way as to give it greater shape and consistency. Breton always asserted that Surrealism was not a literary movement, that ‘literature’ was one of the things that had to be destroyed. An exception was made for poetry, the form of writing that mattered most to him; and his own poetry is at its best when inspiration is moulded by the constraints of convention. When Breton gives himself over to the flow of automatism this tension disappears, and the corresponding yield of textual effects is generally poor, an occasional hit buried in a stream of misses. He got a buzz from such ‘spontaneously’ generated word-play as ‘la lectrice éteint l’électricité,’ but that’s hardly more than a low-grade gag. And when surfacing randomly through the unconscious produces lines like ‘O3 whose skin-snapping resides in C major on the average’, we are left wondering what happened to the distinction that Coleridge and Baudelaire argued for between ‘fancy’ and ‘imagination’ and why it is that, while visual collage makes us work, verbal collage in the manner of Breton seems to demand a surrender to sheer inconsequentiality.

Breton was above all an impresario, the stuntman of Surrealism. He had energy but little stamina; projects – the Bureau of Surrealist Research, Surrealist Central, the Congress of Paris, Salon X, La Révolution surréaliste – were conceived with high enthusiasm and then simply faded out. Breton was quickly discouraged: ‘bored’ is one of Polizzotti’s recurring terms. And when it came to living at the edge, he typically pulled back while encouraging others to jump off. Polizzotti sedulously avoids hero-worship and, in his seven hundred-odd pages, provides ample reason for taking a jaundiced view of a man who managed to live an almost continuously unexamined life. On the other hand, and as befits a biographer writing on this scale, he is committed to his subject. As narrative, his book is scrupulous, workmanlike and often compelling, but he does not supply a coherent and persuasive statement as to why and how in the end Breton’s work matters. His book ends, appropriately, with a sadly ironic epilogue. A walkway in the new Forum des Halles, the hideous replacement for the old Halles in which Breton liked to wander, has been officially declared the allée André Breton.