History of the Surrealist Movement

"With its unprecedented depth and range, this massive new history of Surrealism from veteran French philosopher and art critic Durozoi will be the one-volume standard for years to come.…The book discusses expertly the main surrealist artists like Jean Arp, Max Ernst, René Margitte, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró, but also treats with considerable understanding the surrealist writing by Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, Robert Desnos, Julien Graçq and, of course, the so-called "Pope of Surrealism," André Breton."—Publishers Weekly

"Durozoi's survey is full of value. The most comprehensive study to appear in four decades."—Wall Street Journal

"Durozoi's chronological progress covers all Surrealism's family feuds and public manifestations.… The iconography gathered here is magnificent, including printed ephemera, photographs, sculptures, objects and paintings, with visual synopses of early work by Miró and Tanguy, but also panoramic spreads on, for example, Czech and Japanese Surrealism, impressive works by lesser-known artists, such as Georges Malkine, and from the 1950s and 60s."—Times Literary Supplement

An excerpt from
History of the
Surrealist Movement

by Gérard Durozoi
Translated by Alison Anderson

Chapter Two
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 Révolution surréaliste—an undertaking Breton had decided on by the beginning of July, while he was correcting the proofs of the Manifeste du surréalisme. Word of the opening spread quickly enough for the Journal littéraire 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 surréaliste." The same commentary in Les Nouvelles littéraires: "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 Révolution surréaliste.

The premises were "decorated," as captured in a famous photograph by Man Ray, with a few paintings (De Chirico: Le Rêve 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 Révolution surréaliste, 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 Comédie des Champs-Élysées 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 littéraire, "Encore le surréalisme," 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 Tirésias, and among its proponents were not only Goll himself but also Pierre Albert-Birot and Paul Dermée. The collective declaration affirmed that "Monsieur Dermée 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 Révolution surréaliste, the manifesto, texts by Desnos, Péret, 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 littéraire 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 Dermée (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, Surréalisme, continued to feed the confusion. The unique issue of Surréalisme opened with a "Manifeste du surréalisme," followed by an "Exemple du surréalisme: Le cinéma" (Goll cited as a model La Roue by Abel Gance); among the contributions were pieces by Albert-Birot, Dermée, Pierre Reverdy, Joseph Delteil, Marcel Arland, Jean Painlevé, René 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; Dermée brought together a good number of writers who were opposed to Breton (Albert-Birot, Céline 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

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 Révolution surréaliste, 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 Éditions 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 "Entrée des médiums," retraced his itinerary, from his first experiments, which sought a definition of lyricism, to the crucial experiment of Les Champs magnétiques. 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"). Also influential was the strange phrase of half-sleep captured one evening ("There is a man cut in two by the window"), as was the long quest for "spoken thought," encouraged by Freud's discoveries and by psychiatric activity during the war.

After this historical reminder, which enabled him to sweep aside, once and for all, surrealism's very inadequate references—such as Goll or Dermée—Breton went on to state his definition and did not hesitate to give it the allure of a dictionary item, since the aim was to make up for a lack that Apollinaire himself had felt.

SURREALISM, n.  Pure psychic automatism with which one proposes to express the real process of thought, either orally or in writing, or in any other manner. Thought's dictation, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, outside any esthetic or moral concerns.
ENCYCL. Philos.  Surrealism rests on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of hitherto neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dreams, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends banish, once and for all, any other psychic mechanisms and to replace them in the resolution of the principal problems of existence. Have professed to absolute surrealism Messieurs Aragon, Baron, Boiffard, Breton, Carrive, Crevel, Delteil, Desnos, Éluard, Gérard, Limbour, Malkine, Morise, Naville, Noll, Péret, Picon, Soupault, and Vitrac.

"These individuals seem to be the only surrealists so far," added Breton, "and there would be no doubt about this, were it not for the fascinating case of Isidore Ducasse." But this list was followed by a second list, specifying that point of view, or aspect of their work or existence qualified others (relatively) to be considered surrealists—among them Young, Roussel, Jarry, Rimbaud, Saint-Pol-Roux, and Vaché (of whom Breton would say, maintaining an ongoing and flawless spiritual continuity between Vaché and himself: "Vaché is surrealist within me.") Nor was this list definitively closed, but it united those thinkers who were still subjugated, sometimes quite voluntarily, to a "certain number of preconceived ideas" and who clung to them "because they had not heard the surrealist voice" and were thus condemned to be "instruments of too much pride," too tensely concerned with controlling their production, instead of allowing themselves to become, like the "absolute" surrealists, simple and "modest recording instruments" in the service of that surrealist voice that they were preventing from welling up freely within them.

Breton gave a few examples of that voice, quoting excerpts from Soupault, Vitrac, Éluard, Morise, Delteil, and Aragon. These were excerpts from written work; Desnos, in contrast, "speaks surrealist as much as he likes," and this was a confirmation that the true functioning of thought could be, as the definition suggested, expressed "either orally, or in writing." It was also, if need be, a reminder to those who insisted on seeing surrealism as nothing more than a new conception of literature that it was possible to be very genuinely surrealist, that is, given over to automatism, without, however, feeling obliged to write. It should have been clear that the apprehension of "the real functioning of thought" could not be confined to a narrowly literary goal or, more precisely, that the constraints imposed by the practice of literature were not compatible with the exploration of true thought, of thought as it takes shape, well short of reason and logic as they are ordinarily defined. Insofar as human activity, however, was organized by logic and reason, it was foreseeable that thought would feel narrowly enclosed therein and that it would declare a necessary war of independence on the limits reality was trying to impose on it: as the penultimate paragraph of the manifesto affirms, "only very relatively is the world a match for thought." This, in sum, was the basis of the revolt that for years now had been drawing those who refused to submit. The control exerted by reason and aesthetic or moral concerns could only stifle authentic thought and confine it to too narrow a framework. Doubtless this framework might appear to have the advantage of corresponding to a material or social reality, as it was initially responsible for what that reality became; but if thought freed itself from its censorship yet still found itself in disagreement with that same reality, it should by rights endeavor to modify it. Thus, as soon as surrealism was historically defined, it was able to claim a political dimension. In the manifesto however, any political dimension remained implicit, although Breton, using as his starting point the experimentally demonstrated principle that "language was given to man so that he might make a surrealist use of it," envisaged the so-to-speak local effects of surrealism, where certain social relations could be legitimately questioned. The enumeration—a parody of ancient books of magic—of the "Secrets of the Surrealist Art of Magic" was fairly ambiguous, for as soon as it had listed the conditions for automatic writing, it went on to suggest recipes for avoiding boredom in company (it would suffice to formulate some revolting banality), for making speeches (the surrealist "will be sitting pretty amidst all the failings" and "will be truly elect"), and for writing fake novels (and become rich as a result). Then came the transformations that surrealism would work on conversation, letter writing, and dialogue. The pages of Barrières, in Les Champs magnétiques, exemplified the absolute truth reestablished by "poetic surrealism" in dialogue: interlocutors would be freed from any obligations to be polite and words and images would spring up spontaneously. Breton went on to describe the responsibility of the writer and said that he could respond in all good faith to any accusation his text might evince, that he was not its author; it would be enough for this type of situation to become widespread for one to surmise that when surrealist methods were widely practiced, one would need "a new moral code to replace the current one, which is the cause of all evil."

On the nature of the poetic image, Breton demonstrated, using a number of examples, that it could not be premeditated: "It is the somewhat fortuitous rapprochement of two terms that has caused a particular light to give off a spark, the light of the image, to which we are infinitely sensitive." The image, instead of being manufactured, imposes itself on the poet as if in spite of himself, and Breton disagreed with Reverdy on this point: "The two terms of the image are not deducted one from the other by the mind with a view to the necessary spark . . . they are the simultaneous products of the activity I will call surrealist, and reason confines itself to the recognition and appreciation of this luminous phenomenon." Moreover, the beauty (or, according to the assimilation suggested above, the marvelous) of images constitutes an enrichment for the mind itself: if the mind initially submits to the images, "it soon realizes that images flatter its reason" and discovers, thanks to their fleetingness, the "unlimited expanses where its desires are manifest." Finally, the power of images is proportional to the degree of arbitrariness that they display as the terms draw closer: the more contradictory the referents seem, the more satisfaction the images offer, and the more paradoxically incontestable yet, in a certain still enigmatic fashion, justified they seem. What they can reveal in this way is an underlying current of controlled thought, an effervescence operating in fits and starts, or the immediate passage from one word to another and, beyond the words placed in an unexpected juxtaposition, from one designated reality to another. It is in this multiplicity of paths—which "normal" reason seeks, precisely, to ignore and against which it raises its logical, aesthetic, or moral barriers—that the complete and complex reality of thought resides, the reality that surrealism, heard as if it were a dictation emanating from the mind, has begun to push to the surface.

If, from this point on, on everything is possible in this realm of expanded thought, it becomes clear that the mind that gives itself to surrealism can relive "the best moments of childhood, exultantly"—and is childhood, evoked at the beginning of the manifesto, not the too brief period of existence where imagination dominates and enchants reality? To relive those best moments is to experiment once again with the ability to detach oneself from the world as we know it and to find in oneself the freedom to place that given world at a distance—even if that means one will return to it at some later point to consider it in a new way, with a deeper awareness of what it lacks to satisfy one's desires. Genuine thought goes beyond the limits of a narrow "reality," and that is also why, once its wealth has been rediscovered, there is a risk that it will no longer consent to be mutilated.

When referring to ways in which thought might emerge in written surrealism, Breton had complete faith in an extension of surrealist methods to prevent the appearance, in the immediate, of "surrealist clichés": if one considered how effective the cubist papiers collés were in bringing about unexpected associations, it was conceivable that poetry, too, could work in this way, and in multiple ways, to create associations with all the desired suddenness. These might be texts obtained by reorganizing fragments of lines cut out of newspapers, and Breton gave an example that respected the diversity of the initial typographical characters. But he immediately insisted on his lack of interest in what "surrealist techniques" might consist of: all that mattered was the result—either those techniques would contribute toward that result or not—and the relation that they would establish with the founding automatism or not.

Mingling autobiography, theoretical points of view, and references to the definite existence of a surrealist collective, whose members were listed, the manifesto provided an unambiguous outline of the movement's aims and axes of research. Instead of announcing the appearance of a new school or trend in the arts (as the futurist or Dada manifestos had done), it validated the ambitions that for some time had already been those of Breton and his close circle. Moreover, the list of authors who had formerly been surrealist only in part suggested that the movement had gained a legitimacy rooted in a particular interpretation of the history of writing, which confirmed all the while that this writing had nothing to do with literature alone; literature remained "one of the saddest roads leading to everything."

The scope of the surrealist agenda—nothing less than altering one's conception of humankind and of thought—was such that the publication of the manifesto sufficed for Goll and Dermée's endeavors to seem like simple literary replastering, and they immediately suffered the consequences: from October 1924, both the press and the public considered that "surrealism" referred to the movement led by Breton alone, even if some people (Maurice Martin du Gard, e.g.) continued to believe that Breton was making too much use of a term that belonged to Apollinaire. However, the work was not viewed unanimously by contemporary critics as the de facto inauguration of a new era of ideas: Henri Poulaille saw it as nothing more than a useless and sterile restlessness; Jean de Gourmont viewed Poisson soluble as a variation on the futurist "words at liberty" and surrealism as a mixture of Bergson and Freud; Louis Laloy judged the primacy of the unconscious to be inadmissible; Edmond Jaloux, who devoted a chronicle to the manifesto, Une vague de rêves, and Deuil pour deuil, judiciously found this first work comparable to Novalis and Poe, but feared the development of a literature that would be even more artificial than the one criticized; and Jean Cassou, who asserted that poetry must indeed resist the excesses of rationalism, was disappointed by the criticism of the novel and feared that Breton was preventing himself from obeying his "lyrical power."

In Le Disque vert (January 1925), Henri Michaux questioned the possibility of complete automatism ("It won't be that easy to reach such a complete letting go. . . . There are always concerns."), and as a result he judged Poisson soluble a disappointment, "monotonous, like a clown," envisaging all the while "a fusion of automatism and volition" and the subsequent production of surrealist texts that would "no doubt yield admirable works." In his periodical Manomètre, where in early 1924 he had greeted the "beautiful, pure language, Rimbaldian and personal at the same time," of Clair de terre and announced the foundation of "suridealism," Émile Malespine also revealed his hostility toward automatism, which, as a professional psychiatrist, he intended to reduce to a clinical case: "[The insane] who write in the manner of Monsieur André Breton are a very special category of patient: they are maniacs. Mania is a state of continual agitation, where the patients speak quickly and incessantly. The carping baptized surrealist writing by Monsieur André Breton is called verbal automatism by the alienists." As a result, Malespine considered the manifesto to be a pointless preface to the texts of Poisson soluble; paradoxically, the text as a whole "lacks spontaneity" and suffers from "an impeccable style."

Virtually all of these articles betrayed the obvious difficulty in situating the tenets of the manifesto in the project Breton had defined as extraliterary. Praise and reservations both were applied to a literary context, and it was not so much the life of the mind that concerned these observers as, logically, the life of letters.

Among Breton's close collaborators, reactions were obviously very different. They had agreed long ago with the principles he put forward, so the articles they devoted to his book were more a confirmation of affinity than a critical reaction. For Aragon, Breton "knows the ways between the constellations, and if he doesn't know them, he'll discover them." Éluard was primarily interested in Poisson soluble and accompanied his chosen excerpts with a prose that was poetic in itself; Victor Crastre, more of a theoretician, praised the manner in which Breton linked inspiration, genius, and the unconscious.


Copyright notice: ©2002 Excerpted from pages 63-74 of History of the Surrealist Movement by Gérard Durozoi, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2002 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of University of Chicago Press.

Gérard Durozoi
History of the Surrealist Movement
Translated by Alison Anderson
©2002, 810 pages, 232 color plates, 777 halftones, 8½ x 11
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