andré breton

[contributed by Yves Deplasse]

André Breton (1896-1966) is regarded as the founder of the surrealist movement. It started when, with the help of French poet Philippe Soupault, he developed the concept of automatic writing. His main concern at the time was to find a superior reality, where reality and dream would merge. They then started a literary magazine (Littérature), welcoming contributions by major writers and artists like Aragon, Utrillo, Picabia, and so on. During the year 1926, they published the first parts of André Breton's new book: Nadja. He had met in October an unknown, strange girl who was experiencing what Breton was developing as a theory, and experiencing it in her own life. It finally proved to be dangerous (as seen by the common society) to live without making differences between so-called reality and dreams; it led her to madness, and she was soon put in an asylum.

The final line of Nadja is well known to Patti Smith fans from the back cover of Radio Ethiopia:

La beauté sera convulsive ou ne sera pas.

Beauty will be convulsive or not at all.

To give an interpretation would be presumptuous, but I would say that he meant beauty is in strong relationship with passion, or, to put it in other words, that where there is no passion, there is no beauty.

An additional link between Patti Smith and Breton is found in Marjorie Allessandrini's Le rock au féminin, where Patti is quoted as having said '76 that she believed in coincidences, what Breton calls "hasard objectif." Breton's theory about "objective chance encounters"—a loose translation—is explained at length in the first part of Nadja: a short version is that the surrealists thought we can reach a superior reality by linking events that one would not normally link. For instance, Breton recalls the story behind his friendship with French poet Eluard: He was attending a theater play, when someone came up to him, tried to say something, then left after a confused apology ("I thought you were a friend of mine, who passed away during the [first world] war"). A couple of days later, Breton, through a common friend, got in touch with Eluard by mail, without knowing him. Months later, they met in person; Eluard was the man who had talked to him in the theater. Of course, it doesn't mean anything from a rational point of view, but surrealism has nothing to do with rationality. In the '76 interview, Patti was talking about Bob Marley. She was saying that, according to her, it was not a coincidence if she appeared on the music scene at the same time as Marley: there's a secret meaning hidden behind this so-called coincidence.

Some links:

Alan Gullette's Surrealist Writers Page —has links to biographical material on Breton

a growing Breton page—miscellaneous, including text of two poems

Breton's historic 1924 manifesto, "What is Surrealism?"

The Surrealism Server —a fun site with surrealism in action and lots of resources

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