How many Surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb? The answer--a fish--is at once inoffensive and to the point: Andre Breton and his friends wanted to reinvent man's relationship to life itself, and what better place to begin than with a simple mechanical operation? Illumination was their theme, humor their favorite means and the only problem with this joke, they might have said, is that it is not offensive. After all, these were the French poets and artists who greeted the advent of World War II with the publication of an anthology of black humor. "There's nothing more serious than a joke" goes the old saying, and the Surrealists turned that insight into the most revolutionary artistic program of the 20th Century. It is a commonplace to describe the events of our time as surreal; what is remarkable is that the considerable literary achievement of Andre Breton, the symbol of Surrealism, is so little known in this country. The recent publication of his "Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism" and a selection of his early poems, "Earthlight," both in excellent translations, may win him the audience he deserves.
Breton was born in 1896 in Normandy, and he spent his early childhood in Brittany, whose moors had a profound influence on him: "They have often torn me apart," he admitted in one of the interviews collected in "Conversations," "but I love that light of will-o'-the-wisp that they keep burning in my heart." Indeed, that light was what he tried to pass on in his writings, and in his sixth decade he declared, "all my pride comes from the fact that it hasn't yet gone out. At stake, as I saw it, were my chances of not failing the human adventure." That adventure took shape for him when World War I broke out. Drafted as a medical orderly, he worked with psychiatric patients, experimenting with the free associative methods he had read about in Sigmund Freud's works, exploring the unconscious in order to find what Octavio Paz calls "the primordial language."
His investigations, coupled with his readings of Guillaume Apollinaire and Pierre Reverdy, Arthur Rimbaud and Isidore Ducasse (or, as he was better known, Comte de Lautreamont), led him in 1919 to compose, with Philippe Soupault, "Les Champs Magnetiques" ("The Magnetic Fields"), the first automatic text. Written in the absence of conscious control to express what Breton believed would be "the real functioning of thought," "The Magnetic Fields" opened the verbal floodgates for the writers aligned first with Dada and then with Surrealism: Breton, Soupault, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, Benjamin Peret. It is true that automatic writing proved not to be their Holy Grail; nevertheless, it inspired them to produce much of their best work.
Certainly the practice was useful for Breton, who in these interviews as well as in his polemical writings revealed himself to be a highly rational thinker. His poetry, though, shines with a mysterious light: "I am born in the infinite disorder of prayers," he wrote in "A Thousand Thousand Times."
Destroying shackles of every kind was Breton's dream, and it was realized most often through love. "Each man according to his desires," he said, and his maxim--"Poetry is made in bed like love"--made him one of this century's great love poets. Here is how he begins "The Writings Depart":
The satin of pages we turn in books bodies forth a woman so beautiful
That when we aren't reading we contemplate this woman sadly
Without daring to speak to her without daring to tell her that
she's so beautiful
That what we're going to find out is priceless
Breton's commitment to liberation in the private realm had its counterpart in public life. Linking Rimbaud's desire to "change life" to Karl Marx's order to "transform the world," the Surrealists joined forces with the Communists, and this was what eventually tore the group apart. Breton was quick to denounce the strictures of Socialist Realism and the excesses of Stalinism, which cost him his friendships with Eluard and Aragon. Although he and his movement were eclipsed by the Existentialists, Breton continued to celebrate human freedom; and when he died in 1966, his obituary notice read, "I seek the gold of time." In his eulogy for his friend and mentor Octavio Paz wrote: "Every man is born several times and dies several times. This is not the first time that Breton has died. He knew, better than anyone, that we die more than once: Each one of his central books is the story of a resurrection." This translation of "Earthlight" tells that story once again and, along with "Conversations," makes Breton's first American resurrection imminent.