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History of the Surrealist Movement

History of the Surrealist Movement

by Gerard Durozoi

ISBN: 9780226174112

Publisher University Of Chicago Press

Published in History/General, Arts & Photography/History & Criticism, Arts & Photography/General, Arts & Photography/Schools, Periods & Styles

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1924-1929 Salvation for Us Is Nowhere

On October 11, 1924, the existence of a surrealist group was publicly confirmed by the opening at 15, rue de Grenelle (the premises were on loan from Pierre Naville's father) of a Bureau for Surrealist Research, whose aim was to "gather all the information possible related to forms that might express the unconscious activity of the mind." The press was notified of the opening and of the imminent publication of a new periodical, La Rivolution surrialiste-an undertaking Breton had decided on by the beginning of July, while he was correcting the proofs of the Manifeste du surrialisme. Word of the opening spread quickly enough for the Journal littiraire to publish an account of the event the very same day: "The promoters of the surrealist movement, in their desire to appeal to the unconscious and to set surrealism along the path of greatest freedom, have already begun to organize a Bureau to unite all those who are interested in expression where thought is freed from any intellectual preoccupations; ... all those who are closely or remotely concerned with surrealism will find all the information and documentation relative to the Mouvement surrialiste." The same commentary in Les Nouvelles littiraires: "No domain has been specified, a priori, for this undertaking, and surrealism proposes a gathering of the greatest possible number of experimental elements, for a purpose that cannot yet be perceived. All those who have the means to contribute, in any fashion, to the creation of genuine surrealist archives, are urgently requested to come forward: let them shed light on the genesis of an invention, or propose a new system of psychic investigation, or make us the judges of striking coincidences, or reveal their most instinctive ideas on fashion, as well as politics, etc., or freely criticize morality, or even simply entrust us with their most curious dreams and with what their dreams suggest to them."

Not only did such announcements emphasize the collective nature of the movement, they also indicated the bureau's primary intention of remaining open to all those who dared venture into the vicinity. The bureau was indeed organized in such a way that a daily presence was assured by two people, who were responsible for greeting visitors (journalists, writers, onlookers, even students) and for taking note of their suggestions and reactions in a daily "Notebook"; the office would also guarantee a regular amount of daily publicity for the movement (press relations, various mailings), while in another room, on the first floor, other members of the group could meet for discussions, or exchange ideas and projects, or work on their own texts, or help to edit the first issue of La Rivolution surrialiste.

The premises were "decorated," as captured in a famous photograph by Man Ray, with a few paintings (De Chirico: Le Rjve de Tobie; a watercolor by Robert Desnos; a canvas by Max Morise), posters, and, before long, a headless plaster statue of a boar in a stairway. The surrealists archived works that had already been exhibited, as well as the notebooks in which they would jot down their automatic texts and manuscripts. An atmosphere of effervescent research reigned, where the gifts of chance were always welcome (a poster glimpsed on a wall might be pointed out or the ludicrous content of a classified advertisement), along with the marvelous, thought to be ever latent in everyday life and ready to suggest incongruous juxtapositions of objects and arouse the imagination by reinforcing the victory over mental habits. But the bureau was anything but a simple place for accomplices to gather, even if their affinity was confirmed daily by the communication of dreams and fantasies and by shared laughter, spontaneous exchange, and the joy of the ongoing discovery: the bureau, like the Manifeste or La Rivolution surrialiste, also served a strategic purpose.

In 1924, a specter haunted Paris-at any rate, the specter of surrealism-and it was up to Breton and his friends to prove that they did not intend to allow anyone else to clarify its significance (or, inversely, to trivialize it). An evening at the Comidie des Champs-Ilysies was the occasion for a first skirmish: "surrealist dances" were scheduled to be performed by Valeska Gert, whose impresario was Ivan Goll; the group disrupted the performance with a concert of whistles, and then a row broke out between Goll and Breton, and the event ended abruptly with the arrival of the police. On August 23, Breton and ten of his friends printed a collective text in Le Journal littiraire, "Encore le surrialisme," in response to Goll's declarations maintaining that a surrealist school had existed at least since the time Apollinaire first used the adjective to describe Les Mamelles de Tirisias, and among its proponents were not only Goll himself but also Pierre Albert-Birot and Paul Dermie. The collective declaration affirmed that "Monsieur Dermie involuntarily exploited the grotesque usefulness of Dadaism and his activity was always foreign to surrealism"; also, it stated that "surrealism is something quite different from the literary wave imagined by M. Goll," before introducing texts that were soon to be published (La Rivolution surrialiste, the manifesto, texts by Desnos, Piret, Aragon, and Roger Vitrac) that would reinforce their claim that they had "nothing to do with Mr. Goll, or with his friends either." Le Journal littiraire then published Goll's replies (reiterating the definition he put forward in 1919, to describe playwrighting: "The surrealist poet will evoke the distant realm of the truth, by keeping his ear to the wall of the earth") as well as those of Dermie (who, in the journal L'Esprit nouveau went back over his efforts to "ensure that the term surrealism is still in force" and "keep it separate from petty cliquish quarrels"; he also reproached Breton for wanting to "monopolize a movement of literary and artistic renewal that dates from well before his time and that in scope goes far beyond his fidgety little person"). Breton responded with countersignatures from his close collaborators: "One cannot get into a discussion with such phonies and nitwits," followed by an excerpt from the manifesto that outlined the history of the issue. The quarrel did not bring an end to the debate: Le Figaro and L'Intransigeant, on October 11, both confused the opening of the bureau and the publication of a journal edited by Ivan Goll whose title alone, Surrialisme, continued to feed the confusion. The unique issue of Surrialisme opened with a "Manifeste du surrialisme," followed by an "Exemple du surrialisme: Le cinima" (Goll cited as a model La Roue by Abel Gance); among the contributions were pieces by Albert-Birot, Dermie, Pierre Reverdy, Joseph Delteil, Marcel Arland, Jean Painlevi, Reni Crevel, and Goll himself (an interview with Robert Delaunay). Though such eclecticism might have seemed spicy or even, from a distance, in good taste, in the actual context of the era it only contributed to the obscurity. At almost the same time, a special issue of L'esprit nouveau was devoted to Apollinaire; Dermie brought together a good number of writers who were opposed to Breton (Albert-Birot, Ciline Arnauld, Goll, Picabia, Tzara, and Ungaretti, among others) to remind people of the fact that surrealism did indeed begin with Apollinaire. As proof, he published the letter sent to him by Apollinaire, the author of Alcools, in March 1917: "All things considered, I believe it would in fact be better to adopt surrealism rather than the marvelous I had initially used. Surrealism does not yet exist in the dictionary, and it will be easier to handle than the marvelous as already practiced by Messrs. the Philosophers...." The following month, it was Albert-Birot's turn, in his periodical Paris (published only that once), to protest the way in which Breton and his friends were appropriating surrealism; then Dermie, again in turn, published the first (and sole) issue of Le Mouvement acciliri, in which he reproduced with a few variations his response to "Encore le surrialisme" with the title "Pour en finir avec le surrialisme" ("To finish with surrealism once and for all"). He was joined by Ciline Arnauld, Satie, Ribemont-Dessaignes, Picabia (with his clever gift of aggressing the group by sparing the individual), Vicente Huidobro, Reni Crevel, and Goll. Although Goll maintained his intention to remain faithful to what he called "surrealism," Dermie abandoned the term, and replaced it with "panlyricism."

On October 11, a letter was sent from the Bureau for Surrealist Research to Pierre Morhange, a collaborator on the periodical Philosophies, where he had recently evoked surrealism in terms that were particularly vague: "This art form, invented by the genial Max Jacob ... finds beauty only when rounded out by a lively lyrical painting, in other words, instinctive and natural." The letter is brief: "We would like to notify you once and for all that if you give yourself the right to use the word `Surrealism' spontaneously and without notifying us, more than fifteen of us will be there to cruelly set you right." The response this provoked was Messianic in tone: "Unfortunate gentlemen, I will not address you with words of hate. You are coming forward for me to fight you. I will fight you. And I will vanquish you with Goodness and Love. And I will convert you to the Almighty," and so on. This letter hardly improved their relations.

These skirmishes show just how much Breton and his friends sought to disengage surrealism from any narrowly literary, or even poetic, significance-if one persists in seeing poetry as nothing more than a somewhat refined form of literature. The bureau, from this point of view, was also the place where this principle could be periodically reasserted-because it needed to be-within the group itself: preparations for a first issue of La Rivolution surrialiste, noted in the logbook, showed the efforts made to gather texts, illustrations, human interest stories, and anonymous information. Such heterogeneity would assure a multifaceted relation with life in all its aspects rather than with the aseptic, inefficient world of literature.

The Surrealist Manifesto

Breton's work, the subject of much discussion in the weeks before its publication, was published on October 15, 1924, in a volume with Poisson soluble by Simon Kra's Iditions du Sagittaire. Although it hardly took the author's close friends by surprise, it immediately took on the significance of a global challenge for the intellectual public. Initially conceived as a preface to Poisson soluble (traces of this initial intention can still be felt in its composition), the manifesto quickly acquired the status of an independent text, delineating the goals and challenges of surrealism, even if its insistence on the supremacy of the poetic image was due to its originally intended application.

The manifesto begins with a defense of the rights of the imagination (even as far as the limits of madness) as being the only rights capable of helping the individual avoid a "fate without light" and of compensating for the burden of "imperious practical necessity." The text establishes a relation between the imagination and a taste for freedom: "Dear imagination," says Breton, "what I love most about you is that you are unforgiving," and he added right away that "the word of freedom alone is all that still exalts me."

It was vital, therefore, to reevaluate the realistic attitude born of the positivist tradition, which was "hostile to any intellectual and moral uplift." In passing, this reevaluation seemed to criticize the novel, guilty of preventing the reader's imagination from taking flight because of its descriptive nature and also of stifling emotions by the use of psychological analysis, perforce simplistic and sterile. To the professionalism of novelists-always ready to fill pages in order to conceal the lack of necessity of what they were writing, Breton opposed a categorical objection: "I want one to be silent, when one ceases to feel ... I'm saying only that I do not report the vacant moments of my life, and that it might be unworthy for anyone to crystallize those moments that do seem vacant."

But realism was also the fetishism of logical procedures, which were in fact incapable of solving the authentic problems of existence, while their overestimation had banished from the mind "anything that could be rightfully or wrongfully accused of being a superstition, a chimera ... any means of searching for truth that does not conform with standard usage." Given such an ossification, Freud's contributions naturally deserved the highest praise, thanks to which "imagination may be about to regain its rights."

Subsequently, the importance of dreams was emphasized, because they reinforced the idea that thought, in humankind, had a much wider scope than the dominant tradition. Breton formulated four questions to try to define a terrain for research: What are the possibilities for the continuity of dreams and their application to life's problems? Do dreams explicitly harbor the causes of our preferences and our desires? What form of reason "broader than all others" gives dreams their "natural allure," where everything seems possible, for as long as the dream lasts? How can one conceive the "future resolution" of dreams and reality, apparently so utterly contradictory, in "the surreal?"

In the sparing tone of the manifesto, the attention given to dreams led to praise for the marvelous, synonymous with beauty, capable in and of itself both of instilling interest into the fabrication of novels, as witnessed by Mathew Gregory Lewis's The Monk, and of lending a character a dimension of "continuous temptation." While the marvelous had taken on different forms throughout history, Breton proposed giving it a contemporary form by evoking a castle that he and his friends could haunt at their leisure; any attempt to contrast its existence with what could be known of the place where Breton "really" lived would be in vain. This appeal to the poetic imagination invited an examination of its very sources, and Breton, using elements already evoked in "Entrie des midiums," retraced his itinerary, from his first experiments, which sought a definition of lyricism, to the crucial experiment of Les Champs magnitiques. The definition proposed by Reverdy in 1918 had had a considerable impact in helping to define the nature of the poetic image (it "is born, let's say, of the rapprochement of two relatively distinct elements. The greater and more just the distance between the two approaching realities, the stronger the image").

(Continues...)

Excerpted from "History of the Surrealist Movement" by Gerard Durozoi. Copyright © 2002 by Gerard Durozoi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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