Breton, André (1896-1966)

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BRETON, ANDRÉ (1896-1966)

A French poet, the founder and theoretician of the surrealist movement, André Breton was born February 19, 1896, in Tinchebray, France, and died in Paris on September 28, 1966. Until he was four years old, Breton was raised in Brittany by his maternal grandfather. Nostalgia for those early years of astonishment, fear, and surprise never left Breton. In 1907 he entered the Lycée Chaptal in Paris. In 1913 he began studying medicine, published his first verses, and established literary friendships, first with Paul Valéry, followed by Guillaume Apollinaire and Pierre Reverdy.

Mobilized in 1915, in July 1916 he asked to be assigned to the army's neuropsychiatric center in Saint-Dizier. This period had a "decisive influence" (Conversations, 1952) on Breton. As a student of medicine, he observed his patients with close attention. He developed a strong interest in psychiatry and in Freud, whose ideas he encountered for the first time in Emmanuel Régis's Précis de psychiatrie. As a poet he began to ask questions about literary creation. The discourse of madness contained striking images, how did these come into being? How did madmen and poets develop their language? What was the relationship between subject and object embodied in language?

Freud provided a response to these fundamental questions but Breton had access to them only in the form of Régis's introduction. As a result his concept of Freudian analysis was distorted. Although Breton understood the role of the libido, the conflict between desire and censure, and the dream work that provides insight into the artistic process, he believed with Régis that the analytic method was a mechanized collection of the subject's verbal outpourings, which he repeated as they popped into his mind, like a "recording device" (Régis). This was a formula Breton was to use in his Surrealist Manifesto : "We . . . who have turned ourselves into . . . modest recording devices in our art . . ." (1924). Transference, the analyst's suspended attention in the face of the representations supplied by the subject or their interpretation, dream associations, all of this disappeared. Although Breton continued his medical training until 1920, he was not interested in therapy. His meeting with Freud in 1921 had no affect on him (1924). The problems he wanted to resolve were different: "There is the entire question of language." (1919)

With psychoanalysis, Freud provided Breton with a theory of language. "Those verbal representations that Freud claims are 'memory traces arising principally from acoustic perceptions' are precisely what constitute the raw material of poetry" (1935). The poet as dreamer is the "receiver of Indirect Contributions" supplied by the figurative activity of the preconscious mind, where representations of words and things make contact with one another. He "yields to the collage" of associations (1919). This leads to the creative experiments Breton conducted from 1919 to 1924 (automatic writing, hallucinosis, half-sleep, automatic writing, and others), which found a large number of applications in literature.

In the Surrealist Manifesto, Breton condensed the theoretical conclusions he drew from his experiments. This was the founding text of the surrealist movement that did so much to introduce Freudian ideas to France and elsewhere. Although Breton used Hegelian dialectics to criticize Freud (Communicating Vessels, 1932; the republication of 1955 contains three letters from Freud to Breton), he continued to study him (Carnet, 1921, Cahier de la girafe sur la Science des rêves, 1931, Position politique du surréalisme, 1935, Anthology of Black Humor, 1940) and emphasize the importance of his thought. "Surrealism . . . considers the Freudian critique of ideas . . . to be the first and only one with a basis in fact" (1930).

Nicole Geblesco

See also: Claude, Henri Charles Jules; Literature and psychoanalysis; Surrealism and psychoanalysis.


Alexandrian, Sarane. (1974). Le surréalisme et le rêve. Paris: Gallimard.

Bonnet, Marguerite. (1975). La violence du voir. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Breton, Andre. (1988, 1992). Œuvres complètes (M. Bonnet, Ed.). Paris: Gallimard, La Pléiade.

Carrouges, Michel. (1950). André Breton et les données fondamentales du surréalisme. Paris: Gallimard.

Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1978). Les vases non communicants. N.R.F, 302, 26-45.

André Breton

views updated Jun 08 2018

André Breton

The French writer André Breton (1896-1966) was the leader of the surrealist movement, which was the most important force in French poetry in the 1920s and 1930s.

André Breton was born in Tinchebray and was studying to be a doctor when he was drafted in 1915. The period of World War I was extremely important for Breton in orienting his career. Already interested in poetry, he met the writers Louis Aragon and Philip Soupault while in the army. Also influenced by meetings with the poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Valéry and the nihilist Jacques Vaché, Breton became interested in the importance of reform and revolt in literature and in society. While in the army Breton was assigned to work in the psychiatric wards. The patients he observed and the study he made of neurology and psychology were, like his personal encounters, of great importance in forming his literary and social theories.

In 1918, together with Aragon and Soupault, Breton brought out the first issue of the review Littérature. And in 1919 Breton's first book of poems, Mont-de-piété (Pawn Shop), appeared. Breton grew progressively more interested in dreams and psychic automatism. By 1924 he had organized a group dedicated to surrealism and had issued his Manifeste du surréalisme. In 1930 and 1934 he wrote two additional manifestos, which explained the principles of surrealism. From the beginning, surrealism was conceived of as a movement transcending the purely literary or esthetic concerns, and it turned increasingly in the direction of social participation. In 1926 Breton joined the Communist party but withdrew in 1935 because of the incompatibility between the total personal freedom that surrealism advocated and the individual submission that Marxism required.

Meanwhile Breton published some of his most important works, notably Nadja, an account of his relationship with a woman and their explorations of the "daily magic" of Paris, and L'Immaculée Conception (The Immaculate Conception), in which Breton and the poet Paul Éluard simulate various forms of mental derangement. During the rest of the 1930s Breton's chief publication was L'Amour fou (Mad Love), a work illustrating the importance of love, one of the basic articles of surrealist faith. By 1939 it had become apparent that the heyday of surrealism was over. Breton had been its life and soul, but the history of the movement had been marked by noisy repudiations and denunciations. After breaking with his former companions and the Communist party, Breton visited Mexico. He made New York City his headquarters during World War II. When he returned to Paris, existentialism had replaced surrealism, but Breton tried to keep surrealism alive. He organized exhibitions, promoted reviews, and published articles and texts until his death in 1966. Breton's theoretical work continues to have a great impact, and his creative work, although yet not fully appreciated, demonstrates rare poetic gifts.

Further Reading

A recent and thorough biography of Breton is Anna Balakian, André Breton: Magus of Surrealism (1971). J. H. Matthews, André Breton (1967), in the series "Columbia Essays on Modern Writers, " is an introduction by an authority on surrealism. Although older and not as comprehensive, other excellent studies in English are Georges E. Lemaître, From Cubism to Surrealism in French Literature (1941; rev. ed. 1947), and Anna Balakian, The Literary Origins of Surrealism (1947; rev. ed. 1965) and Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute (1959). Other works are Mary Ann Caws, Surrealism and the Literary Imagination: A Study of Breton and Bachelard (1966), and Herbert S. Gershman, The Surrealist Revolution in France (1969). □

Breton, André

views updated May 23 2018

Breton, André (1896–1966) French poet and theorist. A founder and poet of the surrealism movement, he wrote Manifeste du surréalisme (1924) and Le Surréalisme et la Peinture (1928). His fictional works, an autobiographical novel Nadja (1928), Les Vases Communicants (1932), L'Amour Fou (1937) and Poèmes (1948), reflect surrealist theories. See also Dada

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