André Breton had written the first manifesto of Surrealism in 1924. From
that moment and until the second manifesto written in 1946, it is Breton with
this text that has been the judge or keeper of what was considered to be
Surrealist. When he had conflicts with other members of the group (for example
when Breton wanted to join the communist party, and that members such as
Antonin Artaud refused to take part in political action) these members were
excluded. Breton is actually the one who met most of the Surrealists and founded
the movement: he had met in 1917 first Philippe Soupault and then Louis Aragon,
moreover although he was a medical student, he had already a ‘foot’ in the
world of poetry, corresponding with poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul
Valéry, and Pierre Reverdy. The Surrealists all shared a common taste for the
poetry of writers such as Apollinaire, le comte de Lautréamont (or Isidore
Ducasse), Stéphane Mallarmé, Gérard de Nerval, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles
Baudelaire… Soon Max Ernst, Paul Eluard, Benjamin Péret, André Masson and
Tristan Tzara joined the group. Dadaism had started in
Breton starts his manifesto with the story of man in relation with his thought, his mind, from childhood to adult life. Man has lost the ‘faith in real life’, but if he is lucid, he has to turn towards his childhood, during which life was much easier. Firstly, during his childhood, man is relatively free of his ‘moral conscience’, therefore his thought is also free from the outside social laws, and he is consequently close to his mind as he can express it and live it outside social and moral conventions: “Là, l’absence de toute rigueur connue lui laisse la perspective de plusieurs vies menées à la fois; il s’enracine dans cette illusion; il ne veut plus connaître que la facilité momentanée, extrême, de toutes choses.” Secondly, childhood offered a bigger part in one’s life for the imagination, whereas later imagination is enslaved. Then, when man reaches his twenties, he starts to obey to these laws and social conventions, these ‘lois d’une utilité arbitraire’. Therefore man stops then to be in contact with his true self, he loses his freedom and more importantly in Breton’s view man sets the limits of his imagination reducing it or even eliminating it. Losing his imagination means he is now unable to appreciate greatly ‘exceptional situations’ such as love, and anyway he now follows rules of utility, necessity: “il apartient désormais corps et âme à une impérieuse nécessité pratique” Without a close contact with his imagination, man loses appetite for ‘real life’ and even his perception is affected by it: he sees in his lived experiences, in a event, only what links it to other similar events: “Il ne se représentera, de ce qui lui arrive et peut lui arriver, que ce qui relie cet évènement à une foule d’évènements semblables, évènements auxquels il n’a pas pris part, évènements manqués.” Consequently, childhood was a moment during which there were better ‘conditions’ to be close to the true self, because a child gives more freedom to his imagination and less control to his reason. The mind has to be free from the control exerted by reason. Then Breton makes a link between this freedom and madness, by the question: where does the freedom of thought, of mind start to be dangerous?
After childhood, the other situation where a man has more freedom of imagination and less control of reason, is madness. Mad men are interned, according to Breton, because of minor acts, which were a bit ‘reprehensible’; mad men are ‘victims of their imagination’. As mad men let imagination control them, they give less power to their reason, but also they are not bound to civic social duties and moral conventions. They live in their own world without the influences exerted by the outside world. This makes Breton conclude that they must appreciate their ‘delirium’ enough to be able to keep it only for themselves: “Mais le profond détachement dont ils témoignent à l’égard de la critique que nous portons sur eux, […], permet de supposer qu’ils puisent un grand réconfort dans leur imagination, qu’ils goûtent assez leur délire pour supporter qu’il ne soit valable que pour eux.” So Breton is not scared of the freedom of thought (“Ce n’est pas la crainte de la folie qui nous forcera à laisser en berne le drapeau de l’imagination.”), even at the point where it begins to be madness, as madness also is characterised by the presence in one’s life of ‘hallucinations and illusions’, which are great sources of satisfaction, but also two domains of Surrealist exploration.
Childhood and madness are, according to Breton, two directions to be followed. The reason is that the world in which we live in does not offer any place for our imagination; utility, morals, civility, and even aesthetics take away the freedom of our acts and even our perception. Breton, after exposing the greatness of childhood and madness as moments during which we are close to our true self and less of a social self, explains what he thinks is wrong in this society we live in, mainly by the critic of realism, of psychology, of philosophy and of logic. First it is the critic of the ‘realistic attitude’: “hostile à tout essor intellectuel et moral.” Novels written with the aim of reproducing reality are, according to Breton, boring and only descriptive of void moments (Breton here criticises long descriptive novels, it is even less surprising to know that he worked for Proust, probably the moment he started hating long descriptions…). Moreover, because everything is said and described there is no more place for imagination. Then Breton attacks psychology, and the bad habit to want to classify and bring everything to the known: “L’intraitable manie qui consiste à ramener l’inconnu au connu, au classable, berce les cerveaux. Le désir d’analyse l’emporte sur les sentiments.” Philosophy is next in Breton’s critics: if philosophy was really efficient, i.e. if a theory or group of theories were efficient they had to be really definitely opening a wider field, which was not the case.
“Il me parait que tout acte porte en lui-même sa justification, […] qu’il est doué d’un pouvoir rayonnant que la moindre glose est de nature à affaiblir. Du fait de cette dernière, il cesse même, en quelque sorte de se produire.”
Breton establishes here another major theme of Surrealism: as each act possesses in itself its own justification, then all acts can be allowed, and discussion about it even tends to eliminate the acts themselves. Therefore to be able to commit an act in conformity with our true self, we need to prevent ourself the most from the control of reason, and not try to analyse everything. Slowly Breton is bringing the main points of Surrealism by explaining their necessity, as we live in a world dominated by logic, reason. Reason however, lets us only resolve secondary problems, and observe our mere experiences, which are themselves limited, as our actions are motivated by ‘immediate utility and guided by good sense’, they remain in conformity with what they are expected to be:
“Inutile d’ajouter que l’expérience même s’est vu assigner des limites. Elle tourne dans une cage d’où il est de plus en plus difficile de la faire sortir. Elle s’appuie, elle aussi, sur l’utilité immédiate, et elle est gardée par le bon sens. Sous couleur de civilisation, sous prétexte de progrès, on est parvenu à bannir de l’esprit tout ce qui se peut taxer à tort ou à raison de superstition, de chimère; à proscrire tout mode de recherche de la vérité qui n’est pas conforme à l’usage.”
Breton is also in favour of superstition, and in all that is not ‘in conformity with the general use’, adding here another major point leading to the necessity of Surrealism, as a new way of life closer to real life. This life lacks in its inner dimensions, imagination has been swept away by the tide of reason. Luckily Freud brought to light the field of the unconscious.
With Freud, dreams and the unconscious more generally, have started to be analysed. The subconscious can reveal a lot and it also interferes a lot in our actions. Psychoanalysis teaches to identify the subconscious’ actions, and put the unconscious under the control of reason. This is a bit contradictory with Breton’s will not to be dominated by the control of reason, but what Breton finds in Freud is that he put emphasis on the unconscious and made people give more consideration to the unconscious rather than seeing it as non-reason. With Freud more attention can be given to the imagination:
“L’imagination est peut-être sur le point de reprendre ses droits. Si les profondeurs de notre esprit recèlent d’étranges forces capables d’augmenter celle de la surface, ou de lutter victorieusement contre elles, il y a tout intérêt à les capter, à les capter d’abord, pour les soumettre ensuite, s’il y a lieu, au contrôle de notre raison.”
The task of exploring the human mind that started with Freud might as well be done by poets, according to Breton. Thanks to Freud, have started studies of dreams, hypnosis, ideas’ association, all of which for Breton will be fruitful methods for Surrealist creations. Breton develops the Freudian notion that dream is part of ‘psychic activity’, for him man believes there is continuity in his moments of awakening, whereas it is an illusion of continuity as our memory keeps random traces of reality and dreams: “Le rêve se trouve ainsi ramené à une parenthèse, comme la nuit.” Breton then characterises four points about dreams. Firstly, dreams could have a continuity, it is only our memory that makes breaks in them, therefore what we believe of reality, the moments we are awake, is not more valid than what we can allow ourselves to believe about our dreams. Secondly, even during the moments we are awake, we cannot express ourselves, we can only have subjective opinions, and generally we attribute our mistakes to fate. Maybe dreams could give more clues about the reason why we make those mistakes. Thirdly, dreams, like childhood, are easier and more satisfying, there is not the question of possibility, in our dreams we accept naturally even the strangest things:
“Quelle raison, je le demande, raison tellement plus large que l’autre, confère au rêve cette allure naturelle, me fait accueillir sans réserves une foule d’épisodes don’t l’étrangeté à l’heure où j’écris me foudroierait?”
Finally, it is only when dream will be closely examined that we will be able to realise the nature of dream. Breton defines here surreality as: “la résolution future de ces deux états, en apparence si contradictoires, que sont le rêve et la réalité, en une sorte de réalité absolue, de surréalité.” Therefore after examining childhood and madness as states of freedom, after condemning realism, psychology, philosophy and rationality, Breton explained that man has to turn towards this childhood, towards a greater freedom of imagination, of thought, hallucinations and illusions being a source of satisfaction, towards the unconscious recently brought to light by Freud, and especially towards dreams, the resolution of the two states of dream and reality being the surreality towards which Breton is aiming. Now that he has given the general reasons of his motivation for wanting a different sort of ‘reality’, now that he has indicated childhood, hallucinations and dreams as states during which reason has less control, he can start giving what can be called his ‘art poétique’, explain what is his art, such as:
“le merveilleux est toujours beau, n’importe quel merveilleux est beau, il n’y a même que le merveilleux qui soit beau.
Dans le domaine littéraire, le merveilleux seul est capable de féconder des oeuvres ressortissant à un genre inférieur tel que le roman et d’une façon générale tout ce qui participe de l’anecdote.”
In this art poétique, Breton places the ‘merveilleux’, the marvellous, as the most productive and appropriate genre for literature, novels. Only the ‘merveilleux’ has beauty, then he also adds: “Ce qu’il y a d’admirable dans le fantastique, c’est qu’il n’y a plus de fantastique: il n’y a plus que le réel.” Even in the ‘fantastic’, there is only reality, in Breton’s sense, it means that the search for truth has more chance to succeed in the ‘fantastic’, rather than in realistic novels. ‘Fantastic’, ‘merveilleux’ are both oriented towards a sort of mysticism, towards what elevates man to a higher realm, to be a more perfected man as in alchemical traditions: “ce qui de l’esprit aspire à quitter le sol.” Moreover this ‘merveilleux’ differs in time, it is in general a symbol “propre à remuer la sensibilité humaine”. Therefore it seems for Breton that poetry has to have certain magical or mystical properties: it elevates man, comes from the deepest realms of the mind, and it ‘moves’ human feelings because of the inner journey it has accomplished. Whereas Breton also proposes to defy bad taste: after morals, logic, Breton wants to fight aesthetics and what has become the established taste. “L’homme propose et dispose. Il ne tient qu’à lui de s’appartenir tout entier […] La poésie le lui enseigne.” Again in the sense of a mystical philosophy, poetry reveals itself as the tool for man in order to be complete, ‘to belong to oneself entirely’, perception and identity are both in danger when man is obeying to external laws such as moral, common sense or aesthetics. Instead of a phenomenology of perception, Breton proposes poetry as the tool to be complete or true to oneself, as ‘the compensation of miseries’, the poetic vision being more related to true perception. To practice poetry is a difficult task in this sense, because the poet has to go deep in himself, to eliminate the control of reason that blurs his true vision, the true poetic image. Breton himself did not realise that the slow composition of his poems before was useless and that he had to go further. To give an account of the situation of poetry before his manifesto, Breton mentions the aesthetics of Pierre Reverdy: images are ‘pure creations of the mind’; they rise from the mental reunion of two realities, and their ‘emotive power’ depends on the distance between these two realities. But Breton believes that these aesthetics are ‘a posteriori’ and the poet cannot unite the two realities, they just are brought on a same plan or are not, the poet has no power on that.
In the line of dreams, madness, hallucinations Breton brings to light the fact that sentences said just before falling asleep, ‘phrases de demi-sommeil:’, have no predetermination; it is also the case of fast monologues, which were practiced on patients during the war, and on which our critical mind doesn’t interfere. All these are the exact thought spoken out, “la pensée parlée”. The Magnetic fields written with Philippe Soupault comes out of this idea of fast monologues; in La Révolution Surréaliste will also be published some dreams of the Surrealists. After having exposed what could be tools to reveal the true thought, and after having explained the necessity for poetry to take on this path in this world paralysed by laws and conventions, morals and aesthetics, all keeping our mind and actions inside the modern cage that has become our society, after having raised a hope for surreality in the ‘future resolution of these two states that are dreams and reality, after all that, Breton can give definitions of Surrealism and then of Surrealist images:
“Surréalisme, n.m. Automatisme psychique pur par lequel on se propose d’exprimer, soit verbalement, soit par écrit, soit de toute autre manière, le fonctionnement réel de la pensée. Dictée de la pensée, en l’absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale.
ENCYCL. Philos. Le surréalisme repose sur la croyance à la réalité supérieure de certaines formes d’associations négligées jusqu’à lui, à la toute-puisssance du rêve, au jeu désintéressé de la pensée. Il tend à ruiner définitivement tous les autres mécanismes psychiques et à se substituer à eux dans la résolution des principaux problèmes de la vie.”
Surrealism aims therefore to express the ‘real functioning of thought’, without the ‘control exerted by reason’, without consideration to ‘aesthetics or morals’. As a way of expression, in its philosophic sense, Surrealism is a ‘psychic mechanism’ based on the belief of ‘the superior reality’ of dreams, ‘disinterested thought’, of ‘certain forms of associations’. Breton in his definition of Surrealism summarises what he has just explained in his manifesto: reason, which controls the adult man’s life and the life of the sane in the society we live in, diverts true thought and even deforms reality. The reality that emanates from dreams, fast monologues, ‘disinterested thought’, is a superior reality towards which the Surrealist must direct his thought and expression. Then, Breton writes who is Surrealist and who was Surrealist in literature and in what (“Poe is Surrealist in adventure…”). Surrealists are ‘recording machines’, they do not ‘filter thought’, they do not have talent:
“Mais nous, qui ne nous sommes livrés à aucun travail de filtration, qui nous sommes fait dans nos oeuvres les sourds réceptacles de tant d’échos, les modestes appareils enregistreurs qui ne s’hypnotisent pas sur le dessin qu’ils tracent, nous servons peut-être encore une plus noble cause. Aussi rendons-nous avec probité le “talent” qu’on nous prête. Parlez-moi du talent de ce mètre en platine, de ce miroir, de cette porte, et du ciel si vous voulez.
Nous n’avons pas de talent,”
Then after definitions of Surrealism and defining who is Surrealist, Breton explains what he calls ‘secrets of magical art’. In automatic writing such as The Magnetic Fields, the poet must be in a ‘passive and receptive state’. Automatic writing is eased by the fact there is always a sentence external to the thought that wants to be externalised: “tant il est vrai qu’à chaque seconde il est une phrase étrangère à notre pensée consciente qui ne demande qu’à s’extérioriser.” As Surrealism aims to go deep in the poet’s thought, it goes as far as death, death being ‘a secret society’. In this mystical journey, death or Surrealism will engrave ‘memory’. Surrealism aims to recover the memory of those states that are dreams, death, half sleep, automatisms, because it is memory again which makes the cuts in what we think is reality or dreams:
“Le surréalisme vous introduira dans la mort qui est une société secrète. Il gantera votre main, y ensevelissant l’M profond par quoi commence le mot Mémoire.”
The last point of the manifesto is threefold summary of Surrealist creation. Surrealist images are first of all, like opium images, as described by Baudelaire quoted here by Breton: “s’offrent à lui, spontanément, despotiquement. Il ne peut pas les congédier; car la volonté n’a plus de force et ne gouverne plus les facultés.” Moreover the value of a Surrealist image depends on the ‘beauty of the spark’ obtained by the reunion, reunion not controlled by the poet, of two realities, spark which is “fonction de la différence de potentiel entre les deux conducteurs.” Surrealist images are like the only “guidons de l’esprit”, Breton goes on by mentioning different kind of Surrealist images, the strongest, the most expressive for him being the ones with the highest degree of arbitrary, the most contradictory one, abstract, etc. Secondly, Surrealism returns to man the best part of childhood, it brings back man closer to the ‘merveilleux’, the marvellous, and closer to real life, to the true self, to possessing one’s own self: “où tout concourait cependant à la possession efficace, et sans aléas, de soi-même.” These mystical inner depths are frightful:
“On revit, dans l’ombre, une terreur précieuse. Dieu merci, ce n’est encore que le Purgatoire. On traverse, avec un tressaillement, ce que les occultistes appellent des paysages dangereux.”
Thirdly, there is no prophecy in Surrealism , no rules on the Surrealist methods, it is the way of non-reason, non-conformity, the way of spontaneity, of distraction. Surrealism, moreover, cannot be explained, translated:
“Le surréalisme, tel que je l’envisage, déclare assez notre non-conformisme absolu pour qu’il ne puisse être question de le traduire, au procès du monde réel, comme témoin à décharge. Il ne saurait, au contraire, justifier que de l’état complet de distraction auquel nous espérons bien parvenir ici-bas.”
Breton finishes his manifesto by announcing an independence war of thought, in which Surrealism is the weapon, the “rayon invisible” in order to reach victory. Breton also states that man has not understood yet, that life and death are the imaginary solutions, that existence is elsewhere: “C’est vivre et cesser de vivre qui sont des solutions imaginaires. L’existence est ailleurs.”
This manifesto, manifesto because of the necessity to turn towards Surrealism as a new way of life, is partly the eulogy of distraction, partly a philosophic manifesto aiming to a change of attitude towards life and a reorientation towards the true self in order to be able to express the true thought, the ‘spoken thought’, partly the manifesto of a magical or mystical art. Breton does not go out of the frames of what past literature has given as manifestos, with the use of the eulogy and the description of what can be called his art poétique, even though he is against most philosophers and most of previous literature, in this manifesto, Breton aims to declare his philosophy of non-philosophy, his refusal of the work of reason and his apologia of distraction as an efficient tool for the spoken thought. With the use of dreams, of fast monologues, of half sleep sentences, or the Surrealist dialogue, Breton aims to create Surrealist images that escape the control of reason, the rules of morals and aesthetics, and consequently images that come from the true self, from the inner self not influenced by the outside world. Even if Breton is writing the manifesto of such mode of expression, this mode of expression rejects the work of reason, of order, which were directing most of the artists’ creations, and also it rejects most of previous artistic creations, because they lack of reality, they are not revealing real life. In a very structured manner, Breton has explained the necessity of a new mode of expression, explaining first where is to be found this true, honest mode of expression (childhood, madness, and then thanks to Freud, dreams), realising then that the world we live in does not offer the chance to have such honest expression, and finally proposing a new form of expression answering these needs of inner depths. There is a logic for Breton to the fact that we need to escape from the domination of logic of reason, and that is what he wants to demonstrate in his manifesto. This escape leads to the origin of the self, to the realm of surreality. It is because of the necessity to change some of the rules of artistic creation, to see differently, that Breton wrote this manifesto. That is why in a way Breton allows himself to write a logical text giving definitions of Surrealism: he explains where we are, what we need and where we need to go, more as a mystical leader, a sort of prophet, but again he is against prophecies. Although Breton aims to be subversive and extreme, he still gives the measure of his sayings, by notifying that there are his personal views, moreover he seems to evaluate very carefully what he writes, and becomes this way quite moderate, as it is only one mode of expression, and only reserved for those poets or artists who want to go through this inner journey. The inner journey brings to a state of non-duality, where reality and dream states are resolved. Probably this goal towards an absolute reality could resolve Breton’s contradictions. Surrealism presents itself as the only state for Breton, where realities are brought together on a same plan, and it is in itself a contradiction: the philosophy of non-philosophy, the creation rising from a distracted mind, with thoughts and imagination liberated from all its chains. Surrealism is a non-conformist attitude, it is the path of non-reason, but through this path, and from the experience of these inner depths, man gets the memory of these states and can see more clearly his true self, gets closer to real life, as the ‘existence is elsewhere’.
 Francis Picabia, Dada manifesto in the number 8 of the revue 391, February 1919, Art is a pharmaceutical product for the stupid.
 René Passeron, Le Surréalisme, p 33, Breton realised that he had to break away, even from those who made the act of rupture their profession.
 René Passeron, Le Surréalisme, p 33, They don’t do anti-art, but develop creative life as a new art-de-vivre, in rupture with the fatuity of pohets.
 Entretiens, André Breton, february 1922, in Le Surréalisme, théories, thèmes, techniques, Gérard Durozoi, Bernard Lecherbonnier The experimental activity that antecedes to surrealism marks here a pause. With the publication of the Manifesto Surrealism enters its reasoning phase.
 René Passeron, Le Surréalisme, p 45
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 13
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 14
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 16
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 19
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 20
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 20
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 21
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, pp 23-24
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 24
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, pp 24-25
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 25
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 25
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 26
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 28
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 33
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 36
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 37
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 39
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 41
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 44
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 48
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 49
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 52
 Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme, p 60