An international online magazine that publishes Surrealist poetry in English.
A Brief History of Surrealism
by John Olson
I want to begin with a quote by Maurice Blanchot: "Has surrealism vanished? The question arises because it's no longer here or there: it's everywhere. It's a ghost, a brilliant haunting. By turn, a deserved metamorphosis, it has become surreal."
Surrealism is no longer a collection of people who belong – with any vocal insistence – to an organized movement – as it was for a brief time, chiefly in France in the 1920s – but it is still a phenomenon with recognizable features and serendipitous splendors and people – myself included – who do identify with it as a spirit haunting our words and perceptions, imbuing everything with a dreamlike quality and usurping the reader's expectations at every turn with hilarious non sequiturs and the shock of the new.
It has so completely penetrated nearly all world cultures that whenever something weird or bizarre or a little abnormal occurs everyone says "it was so surreal."
There is also a wealth of iconic images associated with it: giant eyeballs, butterfly windmills, demonic creatures rampaging in chaos and fury.
Salvador Dali: The Persistence Of Memory, melting clocks in a desolate landscape.
René Magritte: a locomotive shooting out of a fireplace or a man seated on a park bench with the head and torso of a bird cage or the painting of a pipe titled This Is Not A Pipe – which it isn't – it's the painting a pipe not an actual pipe.
There are elements of surrealism in Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, who the surrealists revered, and an abundance of it in David Lynch's movies and TV series, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks.
Films like Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky or El Topo by Alejandro Jodorowsky.
The music and lyrics of the Beatles and Bob Dylan among many other rock groups in the 60s and 70s delighted in surrealist pathos and humor; "I Am the Walrus," "Eleanor Rigby," Dylan's Highway61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. In the 90s there was Kurt Cobain's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Debaser" by The Pixies which references surrealism directly with the lines "I am un chien andalusia I am un chien Andalusia / I am un chien andalusia"
Or the marvelous titles to the musical group Earth's many songs and CDS: "Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine," Tibetan Quaaludes," "Site Specific Carnivorous Occurrence," "The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull," "The Corascene Dog."
Circa 2002, French musician Kad Achouri (he is of Algerian and Spanish ancestry) put Paul Eluard's poem Liberté to music, giving it a jazzy hip hop beat, a feathery chorus and a shrewd nod to history. Thousands of copies of Eluard's poem were dropped by parachute by British aircraft of the Royal Air Force above occupied France. Think of the maquis, cold in the dark, and a sky raining poetry.
Surrealism didn't emerge out of a vacuum, nor was it entirely the product of WWI. It was preceded by a great deal of writing that had begun to chafe against convention and find more colorful and exciting ways to flaunt tradition and explode into raptures of verbal expression, such as Arthur Rimbaud's Le Bateau ivre, "The Drunken Boat," which is a phantasmagoric allegory of intoxication.
Mid-nineteenth century writing – primarily in France – began to display an evident and purposeful break with logic and rational thought and had begun to explore the deeper and more mysterious aspects of consciousness, conjuring an intensely metaphoric language into being to describe the soul's chafing against convention, all the ways in which society and religion had failed to nourish the appetites of the human psyche and address the many contradictions inherent in modern life.
Some of the more prominent members of this group include Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Tristan Corbière, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Stephane Mallarmé, Théophile Gautier, Auguste, comte de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Alfred Jarry, and Isidore Ducasse, a.k.a. Le Comte de Lautréamont.
These were writers who were rebelling against the Enlightenment obsession with logic and the kind of mercantilism it nourished; the first real book on capitalism – The Wealth of Nations – was by a Scotsman, an 18th century Enlightenment figure and moral philosopher named Adam Smith. Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations to describe the industrialized capitalist system that was upending the mercantilist system, and which led to the nightmare we have now – mainly here in the U.S. but also evident in Europe, especially with the protests of the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests – of merciless income inequality, tent cities and a for-profit healthcare system. This is not what Smith had intended. Smith had argued that our individual need to fulfill self-interest would result in societal benefit, in what is known as his "invisible hand". This, combined with the division of labor in an economy, would result in a web of mutual interdependencies that would promote stability and prosperity through the market mechanism. Smith rejected government interference in market activities, and instead stated that governments should serve three functions: protect national borders; enforce civil law; and engage in public works (e.g. education).
Well, guess what? It didn't work out that way.
And so a certain group of writers of the mid-nineteenth century – including novelists such as Victor Hugo, Gustaf Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant and Emile Zola – began to dramatize the abuses of the bourgeois and its fraudulent values. They saw immediately that Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and justice were illusory abstractions compared to the realities of industrialization, the dehumanizing ravages of capitalism and colonial suppression.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and WWI: it became cruelly & nakedly evident that 200 years of Enlightenment values had failed catastrophically. Both during and after WWI the world was in chaos, shock, and bewilderment. The last two centuries had seen the overwhelming influence of the Enlightenment and Scientific Rationalism, and they had failed, miserably, to culminate in a peaceful world in which the quality of life had improved for everyone.
WWI was brutal, a mechanized, dehumanizing spectacle of death, disease, and hellish pandemonium. 9 million combatant deaths. 13 million civilian deaths. The old values of warfare – honor, chivalry, gallantry – were gone, obliterated. New weaponry was revealed, death machines that killed with rapacious efficiency. Machine guns, barbed wire, gas warfare, tanks. A "cesspool of blood, mud, and idiocy," observed André Breton.
1918 Spanish influenza caused another 50 million world-wide the war played a role in its spread and severity.
And here we are over a hundred years later with more war and more disease.
Surrealism still has vitality – however ghostly or phantasmal it may pulse and weave through the erratic blips and nodes of culture, because it wasn't just a literary or artistic movement; it was Life itself, an insistence on a way of being in the world. Fullness of being was of paramount importance to the surrealists. Art emanates from intensities of experience. It burns at the border of the real and the chimerical, the hyper-real, the ultra-real, the sur-real. Dream and reality, pun and pond, turboprop and turpentine, enchantment and mop.
André Breton, a key figure in the development of Surrealism, is fully and brilliantly chronicled in Revolution of the Mind by Mark Polozotti.
The surrealists, under the guidance of André Breton, were among the first in western culture to fuse the act of writing with the mad energy of being alive.
"Breton was by this time  forming the view – which would become more defined over the next several years – that the work did not justify the artist, but the artist the work. What interested him was the author's 'human attitude,' the measure of integrity or baseness that distinguished the life behind the page. In the final account, no work of art, no matter how beautiful, could excuse infantile, egotistic, or cowardly traits in its creator, for the simple reason that the creator and the work were inextricably bound." – Mark Polozotti, Revolution of the Mind.
The Surrealists – Breton especially – were completely sincere about the ability of their poetry, a poetry fueled by the spirit of rebellion and subversion, to change the world.
Breton took the matter just as seriously as if, by writing poetry, he was assembling actual bombs, a terrorist act that would undermine the very existence of commerce, politics, and religion.
Poetry was an antidote not just to war but to the crushing banality and asphyxiating conventions of modern, technocratic life. Poetry had the ability to charge the moment with what he called a "convulsive beauty." Convulsive beauty referred to the upheavals intrinsic to heightened awareness, the visions brought on by psychotropic drugs or sexually transgressive acts, energies released from oppression, social perversions, hysteria, chaos, passion; the defamiliarization that is a natural feature of creativity and innovation.
Breton went so far as to suggest that surrealist poetry should be as broadly disseminated as advertising. "Advertising stops being a means and becomes an end... Naturally, we must take the word advertising in the widest sense. This is how I pose a threat to politics, for example. Christianity is an advertisement for Heaven." Breton later claimed that his desire was to write an advertisement for Heaven that would be "striking enough, convincing enough" to make everyone commit suicide." – Mark Polizzotti, The Revolution of the Mind.
Dada and Surrealism were twin developments, slightly askew historically. Dada got off the ground first, advancing its explosive nonsense about two years ahead of Surrealism. Surrealism incubated in Dada. It wasn't so much a matter of influence as of synergy.
The term synergy comes from the Attic Greek word συνεργια (synergia), from synergos, συνεργος, meaning "working together"; the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.
Surrealism was the bee getting nectar from the Dada flower while simultaneously fertilizing the Dada flower with Dada pollen, thus producing combs of surrealist wax and honey teeming with humming buzzing envoys of Dada pollination – or think of the many interactions of "emancipated metal," "spangles of frosty gas," and "ministry of coincidences" in Duchamp's Large Glass.
No one knows for sure how the word Dada came about; some people maintain that it originates from the Romanian artists Tristan Tzara's and Marcel Janco's frequent use of the words "da, da," meaning "yes, yes" in the Romanian language.
Another theory says that the word was randomly chosen when – during a meeting of the group – someone inserted a paper knife into a French-German dictionary and that it pointed to the word 'dada,' meaning 'hobbyhorse'.
Dada pushed nihilism to an extreme ("the true Dadaist is against Dada"; Hugo Ball) – so extreme that it deliberately & delightedly misconceived its own proclamations.
"Dada was not the beginning of art but the beginning of disgust" (Hugo Ball).
"We want to shit in different colors so as to adorn the zoo of art" (Tristan Tzara).
Dada was intensely, feverishly theatrical; they loved provocation, and when the nihilistic energy of Dada ran strong, it could lead to plays such as If You Please, which had actually been written by André Breton (again blurring the boundaries between Dada & Surrealism), in which, in the fourth & final act of the play, one of the actors would commit suicide on stage. No one (fortunately) did commit suicide; during the fourth & final act the stage was left empty.
There was no a small amount of irony in this Dada nihilism; it underscored many of the contradictions within the movement. Dada wasn't really dark at all, nothing remotely like German Expressionism or Edvard Munch's The Scream; it was carnivalesque, more in spirit like the Mardi Gras of New Orleans, full of fun and hilarity, especially when they set out to provoke the bourgeoisie.
It bore an uncanny resemblance in many ways to the concept of the Contrary, or Sacred Clown, among the Native American tribes of the great plains, the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux especially.
This is a tribe member who adopted behavior deliberately the opposite of what others routinely or conventionally do, and was usually accompanied by inverse speech, in which one says the opposite of what one actually means, such as saying "no" when you really mean "yes," or "Grandfather, go away!" when you really mean "Grandfather, come in!"
It was designed to make people more aware of what they're doing and think more clearly about the meaning of their rituals and traditions.
Hugo Ball, a German author & poet, is generally considered to be the founder of Dada. He was a pioneer in sound poetry, and would dress up as a tin man to recite his work.
It was Hugo Ball who opened the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland with his partner Emmy Hennings, a poet of some recognition at the time, 1913. Other founding members included Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and her husband Jean (or Hans) Arp
Hugo Ball kept a diary of the Café Voltaire years which was published as Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary, which is a great pleasure to read, a lamp spinning in the spinal cord of a unicorn on a unicycle.
Hugo Ball: Dada Manifesto
How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated? By saying dada. Dada is the world soul, dada is the pawnshop. Dada is the world's best lily-milk soap. Dada Mr Rubiner, dada Mr Korrodi. Dada Mr Anastasius Lilienstein. In plain language: the hospitality of the Swiss is something to be profoundly appreciated. And in questions of aesthetics the key is quality.
I shall be reading poems that are meant to dispense with conventional language, no less, and to have done with it. Dada Johann Fuchsgang Goethe. Dada Stendhal. Dada Dalai Lama, Buddha, Bible, and Nietzsche. Dada m'dada. Dada mhm dada da. It's a question of connections, and of loosening them up a bit to start with. I don't want words that other people have invented. All the words are other people's inventions. I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own. If this pulsation is seven yards long, I want words for it that are seven yards long. Mr Schulz's words are only two and a half centimetres long.
It will serve to show how articulated language comes into being. I let the vowels fool around. I let the vowels quite simply occur, as a cat meows... Words emerge, shoulders of words, legs, arms, hands of words. Au, oi, uh. One shouldn't let too many words out. A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers' hands, hands worn smooth by coins. I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words.
Each thing has its word, but the word has become a thing by itself. Why shouldn't I find it? Why can't a tree be called Pluplusch, and Pluplubasch when it has been raining? The word, the word, the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness. The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance.
Dada & Surrealism – which were like two branches grafted to the same tree & only began to grow in different directions later – both shared a strong anti-establishment anti-war spirit imbued with a zany combustion akin to the Beatles during their days in Hamburg, John Lennon performing with a toilet seat around his head.
In late 1919, Tristan Tzara left Switzerland and arrived in Paris. He had no money and nowhere to live; he moved in with Germaine Everling, Francis Picabia's mistress, who was home alone with a two-week old baby; he was invited to spend the night on the sofa but ended up installing Dada headquarters there with his giant typewriter & voluminous publicity arsenal.
He'd had some correspondence with André Breton & was a pretty well-known personality in avant-garde European literary circles.
Tzara's entrance coincided exactly with Jacque Vaché's exit. "If I have an insane confidence in you, it's because you remind me of a friend, my best friend, Jacques Vaché, who died several months ago" – Mark Polizotti, Revolution of the Mind
If Surrealism was the Catholic religion, Breton would be its Pope.
And if Dada were a country – which it would most certainly not be – but if it were Tristan Tzara would have been its King, a wacky Charlemagne with a monocle & a shock of long black hair.
Both Tzara and Breton were tireless promoters of their agendas.
How to describe the difference between Dada and Surrealism? In the early days, 1920 to 1924, the two movements were virtually indistinguishable. One key work helps define their differences & goals; the very idea that Surrealism had a goal, a wish to have a transformative effect on society, and Dada had none, outside of its own jubilant brand of nihilistic turbulence, would be one key difference.
Surrealism went much deeper into unraveling the mysteries of human consciousness and progressively became less nihilistic as it separated itself from the Dada aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) and became interested in altered states of consciousness – madness, trance and hypnosis – as being essential to the development of their art.
In 1924, Breton publishes the first Manifesto of Surrealism. This is a cornerstone of the Surrealist aesthetic, not just from a literary point of view, but as a formula for a way of being. Surrealism as a visual medium exemplified by Salvador Dali and his melting watches is a slightly different animal.
A little background:
Breton was studying medicine at the Faculté des Sciences when – in February, 1915 – he was drafted and assigned to the 17th Artillery Regiment.
In July, he is dispatched to the city of Nantes and appointed, as a male nurse, to the hospital of Municipal Ambulance, formerly used as a girl's dormitory.
In February, 1916 he meets a soldier named Jacques Vaché who is there to be treated for shrapnel in his leg, and they become friends. Vaché's letters from the front will inspire Breton's interest in language and a new poetic of lightning-quick perceptions and a mocking tone toward bourgeois society.
Vaché – a red-headed, devil-may-care, foppish smart aleck & a big fan of Alfred Jarry – has an immediate & irresistible appeal to Breton's early seditious leaning.
Vaché is a combatant for the entire duration of the war; on January 7th, 1919, less than three months after the end of the war, he will be found naked on a bed at the Hôtel de France in Nantes with another man, also naked, dead from an overdose of opium.
Vaché's avowed tactic of a "desertion within oneself" for enduring the abrasions and stupidities of life in the industrialized 20th century appeals to Breton's own disaffections with Europe's imperious institutions. Vaché cultivated a sense of indifference toward everything – not an unlikely strategy for someone in the trenches of WWI – a philosophy of detachment, of a fatalistic brand of nihilism – helped considerably by the use of opium and cocaine.
Vaché had no literary ambition whatever – his attitude was a lot like Neal Cassady's relationship with Jack Kerouac.
Breton is transferred to the neuropsychiatric center at Saint-Dizier, where he works under the direction of Dr. Raoul Leroy.
Breton seriously entertains psychiatry as a career.
He might've done well as a psychiatrist, or even a neurologist; he diagnosed a patient with tabes dorsalis (locomotor ataxia) that had been overlooked by others.
He gets immersed in the writings of pioneer psychiatrists, notably Jean-Martin Charcot, nick-named "the Napoleon of Neuroses."
Breton gets a lot of exposure to patients, chiefly shell-shock victims.
He develops a passion for Freudian psychoanalysis and becomes all the more interested in psychiatric diseases such as hysteria and psychosis, which will later serve as a source of inspiration for his surrealist writings and thoughts.
He is especially taken by the richness and strangeness in the free association of his patients – so much so that a friend and colleague named Théodore Fraenkel noted in his diary that Breton "in his nut-case hospital is moved and horrified to see patients who are better poets than he is."
Breton gets a taste of the reality of the war when he is assigned duty as a stretcher-bearer at the front for nearly 4 weeks.
Ten days in a cave performing triage duties by the light of an acetylene lamp.
In January 8th, 1917, he is sent to the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in the 5th arrondissement of Paris for additional schooling.
He is also appointed to La Pitié in the 13th arrondissement of Paris to assist the illustrious neurologist Joseph Babinski.
Babinski is the discoverer of the cutaneous plantar reflex (also known as the Babinski reflex) which detects organic brain lesions and is used in the identification of diabetes; this will later appear in Breton's Manifesto of Surrealism, published in 1924.
Breton's Manifesto is what put Surrealism on the map and gave it an official beginning.
The manifesto doesn't begin with a discussion of literary value or literary technique, Breton focuses right away on consciousness, on psychology. He was very much taken with the work of Sigmund Freud, albeit his take on the unconscious is very different than the one espoused by Freud. Freud thought the impulses of the Id needed to be repressed in order to have a functioning society; Breton thought the impulses of the unconscious needed to be liberated – needed to be fully expressed – in order to have the kind of society in which individuals can realize their full potential.
The language isn't remotely academic. It's poetic, often rather elliptical, enigmatic. It keeps you on your toes. Just reading Breton helps bring about a suppleness of thinking once you catch on to his elliptical turns and intriguing trajectories; the sentences are never static; they seem galvanized, charged with an élan vital that is one part dream, one part membrane, reaching and curling around supernal understandings like bioluminescing tentacles.
First sentence: "So strong is the belief in life, in what is most fragile in life – real life, I mean – that in the end this belief is lost."
What does he mean by "real life?"
A powerful, all-consuming sense of wonder, a quest for the marvelous, the dream life, the imagination.
All the forces of modern life are calculated to crush this sense of wonder and imaginative vitality out of us. Poetry keeps the flame alive.
Those who adapt find themselves materially rewarded but vapid, hollowed out, tricked into believing the carrot dangling at the end of the stick is the sine qua non of modern life. "This is because he henceforth belongs body and soul to an imperative practical necessity which demands his constant attention. None of his gestures will be expansive, none of his ideas generous or far-reaching."
"The mere word 'freedom' is the only one that still excites me," Breton triumphantly proclaims.
"Imagination alone offers me some intimation of what can be..."
Breton states the dangers inherent in removing oneself from the rigors and rigidities of rationality "There remains madness, 'the madness that one locks up,' as it has aptly been described."
Madness is a peril, this is an inescapable feature of the surrealist project, yet adaptation to the false consciousness of bourgeois rationality has a more serious and fatal consequence. The surrealist opposes technocratic society with its extreme exaltation of rational thought and pragmatic solutions to the exclusion of all other values with the rapture of the uncontrollable, the kiss of the ineffable.
Again, this is what WWI made so apparent: the exaltation of technocratic solutions to the exclusion of the sublime lead inevitably to misery and conflict.
"I could spend my whole life prying loose the secrets of the insane," Breton proclaims.
Madness is at the core of the Surrealist aesthetic.
This thought isn't entirely new – but what kind of madness? Not madness of Wall Street, or the madness that was WWI and the wars since then. This is the madness of intoxication, of the intensities of love and creative genius.
Plato's Phaedrus – composed around 370 BCE – chiefly addressed the topic of love, though much of the discussion revolves around the art of rhetoric and how it should be practiced. There was also much discussion on issues of creativity and madness, and madness presented in a manner almost identical to that of Breton and the other surrealists.
The greatest of goods comes to us through madness, provided it is bestowed by divine gift. The prophetess at Delphi, no less, and the priestesses at Dodona do many fine things for Greece when mad, both on a private and on a public level, whereas when sane achieve little or nothing; and if we speak of the Sybil and of others who by means of inspired prophecy foretell many things to many people and set them on the right track with respect to the future, we would spin the story out by saying things that are obvious to everyone. But it is worthwhile adducing this point: that among the ancients, too, those who gave things their names did not regard madness as shameful or a matter for reproach; for otherwise they would not have connected this very word with the finest of sciences, that by which the future is judged and named it the "manic" art.
A third kind of possession and madness comes from the Muses: taking a soft, virgin soul and arousing it to a Bacchic frenzy of expression in lyric and the other forms of poetry, it educates succeeding generations by glorifying myriad deeds of those of the past; while the man who arrives at the doors of poetry without madness from the Muses, convinced that after all expertise will make him a good poet, both he and his poetry – the poetry of the sane – are eclipsed by that of the mad, remaining imperfect and unfulfilled. – Phaedrus, P. 81–84, Penguin Classics.
During his medical service Breton became intensely interested in psychiatric diseases such as hysteria and psychosis, which later served as a source of inspiration for his surrealist writings and thoughts, in particular automatic writing.
Automatic writing is the one key element that characterizes the Surrealist movement and separates it from Dada, which had other means at its disposal, such as Tristan Tzara's recipe for a Dadaist poem:
Take a newspaper.Dada dissolved the input of the author. This was in keeping with the nihilistic flavor of Dada, its tendency to joke around and not take anything seriously. But whether they were aware of it or not, this blend of the destructive with the creative would unleash a very new approach to writing that would culminate later in the century with works such as Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs and his cut-up technique, a technique also used extensively by musicians such as David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. Exile on Main Street was almost entirely achieved through a cut-up technique inspired by Burroughs, but which goes back to Dada and Tristan Tzara's recipe. Other notable examples include Bob Dylan's collection of prose poems, Tarantula (1966), Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School (1978), and Julio Cortázar's 1963 novel Hopscotch.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently. [Shake, don't stir, as James Bond would say].
The poem will be like you. And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
Surrealism – which loved games – had created a technique similar to Tzara's cut-up method called the Exquisite Corpse, in which a sheet of paper is folded to conceal part of the writing & then passed to the next player for a further contribution.
Games aside, Surrealism was far more centered around the issue of being and spontaneity, with expressing the full range of human expression. In this sense it was more akin to the work of Jack Kerouac, and his notion of "Bop Spontaneity."
Dada was more aligned with Zen, and the dissolution of the ego.
Surrealism had a similar impulse, but a more romantic flavor; as Breton described automatic writing in the 1930s, it was not a matter of producing art, "but of casting light upon the unrevealed and yet revealable portion of our being wherein all beauty, all love, all virtue that we scarcely recognize in ourselves, shine with great intensity."
The word 'automatic' in automatic writing suggests a kind of ego-dissolution, but it's really more centered around the idea of connecting with otherworldly realms, like Jean Marais listening to the radio in his car in the 1950 Cocteau movie Orpheus.
Automatic writing wasn't strictly a surrealist invention; it had been appropriated from the psychiatric realm and refashioned to serve artistic ends. Breton's medical studies during WWI was a product of pure serendipity.
There had been a great deal written on the subject of automatic writing in the psychiatric community, beginning in the late 19th century.
In 1889, a pioneering psychotherapist named Pierre Janet coined the term L'automatisme psychologique – psychological automatism – which is defined as "the spontaneous production of often purposeless verbal or motor behavior without conscious self-control or self-censorship."
This behavior was a common feature of soldiers traumatized by battle in WWI, a feature we now refer to as "post-traumatic stress disorder."
Psychiatrists develop theory of the unconscious, though the term came much earlier. The term was coined by the 18th century German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling and later introduced into English by the poet and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Unconscious phenomena include repressed feelings, automatic skills, subliminal perceptions, automatic reactions and complexes, hidden phobias and desires.
Breton references Babinski toward the end of the manifesto and uses a fascinating phrase: "sacred fever." He doesn't define this, but suggests that it's a trancelike state of extreme awareness, an extreme attention to detail, but also the ability to think creatively, to think outside the box, as we like to say.
Breton despises what he calls "the realistic attitude." This is the mindset of the majority of people, and is a direct consequence of Enlightenment ideals exalting rationality, science and technocracy – from Breton's point of view, it is a form of prison and is the cause of a lot of unnecessary mental distress.
...the realistic attitude, inspired by positivism, from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Anatole France, clearly seems to me to be hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement. I loathe it, for it is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit. It is this attitude which today gives birth to these ridiculous books, these insulting plays. It constantly feeds on and derives strength from the newspapers and stultifies both science and art by assiduously flattering the lowest of tastes; clarity bordering on stupidity, a dog's life.
Our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable. The desire for analysis wins out over the sentiments.
We are still living under the reign of logic: this, of course, is what I have been driving at... The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience... It is pointless to add that experience itself has found itself increasingly circumscribed. It paces back and forth in a cage from which it is more and more difficult to make it emerge.
– from The Surrealist Manifesto, by André Breton
How did they make it emerge? One way is dreaming. We don't will ourselves to dream, dreaming happens naturally, but if we pay attention to our dreams, not just their content, but their fluidity and capacity for the discordant, for jumbles of things that have no apparent logical connection, we have discovered something vital. Leave the content of dreams to the psychiatrists, or our private musing; what's really important is the very natural tendency of dreams to subvert, to denude, to disassemble, to overturn.
Needless to say, dreaming was of primary importance to Breton.
Here are some quotes from The Surrealist Manifesto regarding madness and dreams:
I have always been amazed at the way an ordinary observer lends so much more credence and attaches so much more importance to waking events than to those occurring in dreams.
Can't the dream also be used in solving the fundamental questions of life?
The mind of the man who dreams is full satisfied by what happens to him. The agonizing question of possibility is no longer pertinent. Kill, fly faster, love to your heart's content. And if you die, are you not certain of reawakening among the dead? Let yourself be carried along, events will not tolerate your interference. You are nameless. The ease of everything is priceless.
I believe in the future resolution of these two starts, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.
Following these statements, Breton then announces what is at the very heart of the surrealist project: the quest for the marvelous.
A great deal more could be said, but in passing I merely wanted to touch upon a subject which in itself would require a very long and much more detailed discussion: I shall come back to it. At this juncture, my intention was merely to make a point by noting the hate of the marvelous which rages in certain men, this absurdity beneath which they try to bury it. Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.
It's possible that we might've recognized Breton as a psychiatrist and mentioned his name the same way we might mention Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung. So what happened? Why didn't he pursue a career in psychiatry or neurology? Poetry got to him. He fell in love with words. The lure of creating the marvelous through language was too great to resist.
I had begun to cherish words excessively for the space they allow around them, for their tangencies with countless other words that I did not utter.
Words are magic. The images of surrealism are paramount to the vitality of the poem. "The image," wrote poet Pierre Reverdy, "is a pure creation of the mind.
"It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two or more or less distant realities.
The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be – the greater its emotional power and poetic reality..."
– from The Surrealist Manifesto, by André Breton
After the war Breton leaves psychiatry and devotes himself exclusively to poetry. One of his first jobs is to proofread À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust.
It amazes me that, until I read Polizotti's biography, I'd never really thought about Breton's financial situation. It's a common oversight I make whenever I think about or write about poets "making a living" (I've always despised that phrase) seems pathetically beside the point.
Breton's greatest treasure – and one which outweighed all other considerations – was a total immersion in language.
For Breton, language was the sine qua non for creating & experiencing the marvelous. Language has the power to bend time & space, flap imaginary wings & rise into a euphoric condition of weightlessness. It's a Zero-G experience you can do while sitting in a chair or lying on a bed. The Zero-G experience is created when – aboard an airplane – the airplane does a series of steep parabolic dives. The parabolic dives create a weightless condition that lasts about a minute. The Zero-G condition of a poem lasts forever. Or at least as long as mouths & voices & books exist.
"Language has been given to man so that he may make Surrealist use of it" – André Breton
"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Expand the use of one's language is to expand one's awareness and experience of the world next to seeking the marvelous, that is a major goal of surrealism.
When language deteriorates the social and cognitive realms deteriorate with it.
This is a juicy part of the Manifesto. It is here that we get into a discussion of drugs.
"Surrealism does not allow those who devote themselves to it to forsake it whenever they like. There is every reason to believe that it acts on the mind very much as drugs do; like drugs, it creates a certain state of need and can push man to frightful revolts." (Ibid)
Can language get you high? Yes, absolutely. If, by high, we mean an altered state of consciousness, language – which is already inherently involved with our perception of the world – can alter our consciousness with the same ease with which we alter language and use it not so much as a tool for communication but an alembic for the transmutation of metals into gold, for the transmutation of the mundane into the supramundane, the real into the surreal.
Hypnosis is one obvious use of language to alter consciousness, as is incantation.
A key element to the surrealist aesthetic and which also helps put the drug-like effect of surrealism into clearer perspective is the term 'dépaysement.' This word doesn't translate accurately into English. Technically, it means "out of one's country." As Jean-Pierre Couvin describes it in his Introduction to the Poems of André Breton published by Black Widow Press:
Any attempt at defining the poetry of André Breton must begin with mention of a notion for which there unfortunately exists no corresponding term in English, and that is the notion of dépaysement: the sense of being out of one's element, of being disoriented in the presence of the uncanny, or disconcerted by the unfamiliarity of a situation experienced for the first time. Without dépaysement, there is no merveilleux, no encounter with the marvelous, the objective of all surrealist activity. Both terms imply a subversion of accepted norms and values, a reevaluation of reality – at least of reality as defined in Western culture.
This also runs a very close parallel to the Sacred Clown, or Contrary, tradition of the Great Plains tribes, Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux.
It makes me wonder if there are other parallels in other cultures and if it represents a universal need in the human species, if not among all living creatures.
The really important idea here to get across is that the intent of the entire Surrealist aesthetic is its quest for the marvelous: to create a renewed sense of things, to break with habit, break with routine, keep people from becoming robots or zombies.
Les Chants de Maldoror
It was while reading Les Chants de Maldoror that André Breton discovered the singular phrase that became foundational to the surrealist doctrine of objective chance: "as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table."
"In the eyes of some contemporary poets, Les Chants de Maldoror and Poèsies shine with incomparable brilliance," observed André Breton in his introduction to Les Chants de Maldoror in the Anthology of Black Humor, "they are the expression of a total revelation which seems to exceed human possibilities."
"You have to find the colors Lewis used in Le Moine," he continues, "...to paint the apparition of the infernal spirit in the features of an admirable naked young man with crimson wings, his limbs caught in the orb of diamonds under an ancient breath of roses, the star on his forehead and the look imbued with a fierce melancholy, and those with the help of which Swinburne has managed to define the true aspect of the Marquis de Sade: "In the midst of all this noisy imperial epic, one sees in flames this thunder-struck head, this vast chest furrowed with lightning, the man-phallus, august and cynical profile, grimace of a terrible and sublime titan; one feels circulating in these cursed pages like a thrill of infinity, vibrating on those lips burnt like a breath of stormy ideal. Approach and you will hear throbbing in this muddy and bloody carrion the arteries of the universal soul, veins swollen with divine blood."
John Olson is originally from Minnesota, and now lives in Seattle. He is the author of numerous books of prose, poetry, and prose poetry, including Dada Budapest, Larynx Galaxy, and Backscatter: New and Selected Poems. He is also the author of four novels, In Advance of the Broken Justy, The Seeing Machine, The Nothing That Is, and Souls Of Wind, which was shortlisted for a Believer Magazine Book Award in 2008. A new collection of prose poetry, Weave of the Dream King, is due out soon from Black Widow Press.