We share a rich essay by Luke Francis Beirne on the relations between surrealism and radical politics, published by the anarchist The Commoner (23/04/2022).
‘Freedom is the only cause worth serving,’ Andre Breton, 1924
‘It was in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognized itself,’ Breton, 1952
In the early twentieth century, a group of artists in Paris saw that restrictive, arbitrary frameworks had been imposed upon society by structures of power. They recognized that these frameworks ran so deeply that they penetrated the mind and shaped the very way that it perceived reality. They also saw that things could be otherwise and took it upon themselves to develop a practice which could radically re-enchant the world and produce an alternative reality – a superior reality: surreality.
Surrealist practice was an embodiment of revolution. In the sense used here, surrealism refers to the artistic-philosophical work of a specific group of artists in twentieth-century Paris. Though the term surrealism has broader significance, focusing on the specific conditions which led to the ‘original’ emergence of surrealist practice in Paris enables focused exploration of the ways in which it destablised the prevailing ‘liberal-moral-humanistic ideal of freedom’ to produce a radical alternative.The birth of surrealism is often traced to the publication of Andre Breton’s manifesto, Manifeste du surréalisme, in 1924; however, by the time surrealism was formalised, it was already active in attitude and practice.
In 1922, two years prior to the publication of Manifeste du surréalisme, Breton wrote that:
‘Up to a certain point, one knows what my friends and I mean by Surrealism. This word, which is not our invention and which we could have abandoned to the most vague critical vocabulary, is used by us in a precise sense. By it, we mean to designate a certain psychic automatism that corresponds rather closely to the state of dreaming, a state that is today extremely difficult to delimit’ (Rubin, 63).
At this point in its development, surrealism was thought of as a psychic practice closely related to dream, not an artistic style. This idea underpins the trajectory of its development and is evident in the more extensive definition that Breton established in his manifesto, two years later:
‘SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life. The following have performed acts of ABSOLUTE SURREALISM: Messrs. Aragon, Baron, Boiffard, Breton, Carrive, Crevel, Delteil, Desnos, Eluard, Gérard, Limbour, Malkine, Morise, Naville, Noll, Péret, Picon, Soupault, Vitrac.’ (Breton, 1).
Surrealism is concerned with the experiential aspect of dream; more specifically, it is concerned with consciously engaging with aspects of the experience of dreaming. Clearly, this is still not reducible to description of artistic practice or technique. In his manifesto, this definition is framed by extensive critical engagement with society and structures of power indicating that, as J.H. Matthews writes, ‘The first surrealist manifesto is not a programme for revolutionising art and literature, but a programme that appeals for a revision of human values’ (Matthews, 3).
In 1914, Europe ruptured. A consensus of rationalism, capital, and empire, carefully constructed on the backs of the poor and the colonised, was fundamentally shaken. The European sphere of accumulation culminated in an internal crisis. As the First World War dragged on, and the true conditions of European civilization were unveiled, the faith of its people faltered. Structures of power began to destabilise. By the time the German and Austrian people rose up and brought an end to war in 1918, the spirit of revolution flourished.
In the wake of this war, Breton and his contemporaries rejected ‘all the institutions upon which the modern world rested’ and attacked ‘the entire defence apparatus of society,’ from legal and military structures to psychiatry and education (Breton, 128). These artists believed that such structures of power generated, guided, and policed conscious perception and engagement with the world. They intended to dissolve pre-existing conceptual worldviews and create or capture different experiential realities and truths instead (White, 105). As Breton’s manifesto indicates, surrealists believed that it was necessary to unearth unconscious experience in order to do so, as unconscious experience enabled them to circumvent the rigid frameworks imposed by such power structures.
To understand the surrealist project, it is necessary to explore some of the conditions which led to its emergence. In many ways, surrealism was a unique concentration of practises, dispositions, and tendencies which were already circulating in early-twentieth century Paris. The Dada movement, from which surrealism directly emerged, is evidence of this in and of itself (Rubin, 12); however, the prehistory of surrealism is far vaster and includes a wide range of practises and dispositions dealing with subversion, experience, reality, and dream. It is important to recognize that, if a ‘text is a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture,’ as Roland Barthes said, an entire movement has a mass of antecedents far too broad to trace (Barthes, 53). But, certain tendencies and movements seem to stand out pronouncedly in the years preceding the surrealist emergence and deserve attention here.
In 1952, Andre Breton wrote that ‘It was in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognized itself, well before defining itself, when it was still only a free association among individuals rejecting the social and moral constraints of their day, spontaneously and in their entirety’ (Breton, 128). This is an overlooked but vital statement about the prehistory of surrealism. The spirit of anarchism is embedded in the surrealist project. However, this spirit has largely been erased from it in historical analysis. Recognising the significance of anarchism to surrealism illustrates the true extent of the practice’s revolutionary potential. Due to its immensity and decentralised nature, anarchism cannot be neatly packaged and presented. For the study of surrealism, it is worth, instead, noting certain anarchist tendencies that were influential to the practice.
Paris is often identified as the birthplace of anarchism. In 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon published a work titled What is Property? in the city (McKay, 12). In What is Property?, Proudhon intentionally subverted the prevailing connection between the terms anarchy and disorder to establish a theory of anarchy as order (Proudhon, 1840). Certain historians identify anarchism or anarchist practises in societies predating this but this identification may be seen as a retroactive or, in some cases, colonial-minded categorisation. That being said, another French anarchist, Elisee Reclus, noted several decades later that ‘Anarchy is not a new theory. The word itself taken in its meaning ‘absence of government’, or ‘society without leaders’, is of ancient origin’ (Reclus, 1894). Like surrealism, the attitudes and characteristics that became collectively baptised as ‘anarchist’ did, of course, exist in a positive sense prior to their formalisation.
In What is Property?, Proudhon established a theoretical foundation for anarchism which concerned itself with critiquing the State, property, and structures of oppression (McKay, 13). Rather than accepting the imposition of organisation from above, Proudhon advocated for the autonomous production of structures from the ground up (15). These ideas shaped socialist outlook for much of the nineteenth century and guided the structure of the Paris Commune of 1871, where worker’s associations attempted to create an entirely new, radical social order (43). The commune itself was crushed by the state after 72 days but in that short time became the biggest urban insurrection of the nineteenth century and provided further evidence of a strong anarchist legacy in Paris (Roper, 243).
Anarchism began to receive increasing attention in the early-twentieth century, likely reaching its European peak in the Spanish Civil War, in which surrealists such as Benjamin Peret fought (Graham, 127). In large part, the popularity of anarchism was due to the impact of the First World War on Europe. The war erupted, seemingly without sense, when various imperial powers in Europe found themselves tangled in a web of bureaucratic treaties and pacts (Jukes, 5). As it unfolded, all scientific, mathematical, economic, and technological structures in Europe were redirected to warfare. Logical calculations and industrial processes enabled mass slaughter. The accepted consensus of capital, empire, and rationalism culminated in internal crisis, resulting in the rupture of Europe. Even many beneficiaries of the system found it difficult to justify such a form of civilization, and mass resistance grew (51). Despite bourgeoise accounts, the war itself only really came to an end when Austro-Hungarian and German workers and soldiers revolted against their own imperial states (Broue, 34). By this time, revolutionary spirit had already blossomed across Europe. From Ireland to Russia, revolution erupted.
Perhaps the most important anarchist thread to trace when studying surrealism is the relationship between material and conceptual structures of domination. In 1910, Voltairine De Cleyre, an American anarchist, published an essay titled The Dominant Idea. This essay demonstrates keen engagement with ideas of conceptualization and the mind, and the role that such ideas have in the organisation of material life. As De Cleyre writes:
‘my conception of mind, or character, is not that it is a powerless reflection of a momentary condition of stuff and form, but an active modifying agent, reacting on its environment and transforming circumstances, sometimes slightly, sometimes greatly, sometimes, though not often, entirely’ (De Cleyre, 115).
This was written in response to a tendency she noticed in radical thought to focus so totally on material conditions that the reciprocity of thought and practice was overlooked (114). To De Cleyre, the material world was shrouded by ‘unyielding shadows, less pierceable, more enduring than granite, with the blackness of ages in them, dominating living, changing bodies, with dead unchanging souls’ (113). Domineering conceptions of the world police and motivate the actions of people if they go unquestioned, however, De Cleyre suggests that the potential for alternative action is always present in ‘the immortal fire of Individual Will’ which can be harnessed to ‘conquer and remould Circumstance’ (123). This approach is evident in the surrealist project. It is reflected, years later, in Andre Breton and Benjamin Peret’s statement that ‘The fight to replace society’s structures and the efforts made by surrealism to transform mental structures, far from excluding each other, are mutually complementary’ (Breton, 128).
Though anarchist tendencies were central to the surrealist project, and surrealists such as Peret and Breton explicitly called themselves anarchists at various points, most surrealists began to identify as Marxists. Breton later stated that this was largely due to a certain ‘delusion’ about the radical potential of the Russian Revolution (Breton, 128). The approach that the surrealists took to Marxism was somewhat distinct from dominant approaches in France, which emphasised rationalist, scientific, and positivist approaches; instead, surrealists adhered specifically to the ‘Hegelian dialectical heritage of Marxism’ (Lowy, 23). More than anything, surrealists resisted ‘the cold, abstract rationality of modern industrial civilization’ and its capitalist ‘disenchantment’ of the world (22). Transforming materiality, they believed, required re-enchantment. Industrial development was not the key to such transformation.
To surrealists, the potential for re-enchantment existed most evidently in unconscious experiences which were less fully policed by structures of power. As Breton wrote in his first manifesto, ‘If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them – first to seize them, then, if need be, to submit them to the control of our reason’ (Breton, 1). Specifically, this meant harnessing ‘the omnipotence of dream’ (1).
This focus on dream was also not without precedent. In her article Artists and Dream in Nineteenth Century Paris, Stefanie Heraeus notes that a number of French artists began to engage with the potential of dream in a unique way during the nineteenth century (Heraeus, 156). She identifies this practice as being of particular importance to the prehistory of surrealism. She also suggests that a fixation upon Sigmund Freud ‘seems to obscure recognition that in France, a paradigm shift in the pictorial as well as theoretical understanding of dreams was already taking place in the middle of the nineteenth century’ (152). Though Freud was undeniably highly influential to the surrealist focus on dream, his influence was not total. As a result, it is necessary to highlight some of these lesser known influences, particularly those that combined exploration of the psyche with aesthetic signification.
In particular, Heraeus draws attention to the importance of artists such as Jean-Jacques Grandville, who devoted his attention to understanding and expressing the ‘mechanism’ of dream, rather than using dream to construct traditional narrative (152). One of the important aspects of Grandville’s work is his aesthetic exploration of the scientific or psychological aspect of dream. For instance, Grandville’s engraving ‘The Metamorphoses of Sleep’ depicts something akin to associative logic.
As Heraeus states, this engraving depicts ‘two chains of associations’ which interconnect in various stages ‘into a vase with a flower, which in turn is transformed into a female figure, only to dissolve into the mist’ (Heraeus, 156). Significantly, ‘the disparate objects are linked only through similarity of form’ demonstrating an alternative system of logic and conceptualization (156).
Heraeus draws a connection between Grandville’s art and the work of researchers, such as Alfred Maury, who began to undertake empirical research of sleep and dream from ‘the psychological point of view’ in the 1840s (157). Maury, who Andre Breton later called ‘one of the finest observers and experimenters ever to have appeared in the nineteenth century,’ placed specific emphasis on the way that dreams were able to exist beyond the laws of the waking world: in dream, ‘New laws, strange kinds of combinations and coincidental relations develop between persons, objects and words, whose contradiction with external reality does not surprise the dreaming subject’ (Breton, 12; Maury, 154). In addition to Grandville, Heraeus notes similar attitudes and practises in the works of Victor Hugo, Marie-Jean-Leon d’Hervey de Saint-Denys, Charles Meryon, and Odilon Redon. The connecting thread between these artists is not that they simply dealt with dream in their art but that they were concerned with constructing artistic languages which could accurately represent the state of dream (Heraeus, 164) .
In addition to dream, the surrealist desire for re-enchantment was drawn from the treatment of myth in the Romantic tradition. In Morning Star, Michael Lowy deals with the relationship between Romanticism and surrealism in depth. Like certain Romanticist threads, surrealism intended to produce a new collective myth which presented an alternative to dominant ‘myths’ of their respective era (Lowy, 15.) Such a desire can be seen in Breton’s manifesto, when he states that: ‘Under the pretence of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices’ (Breton, 1). Lowy draws particular attention to Friedrich Schlegel’s idea of ‘new myth’ as developed in the classic Romanticist work Discourse on Mythology (Lowy, 14). In this work, Schlegel produces the idea of a new myth which was not merely a ‘pale imitation of the past’ but drew experience from the ‘deepest depths of our mind’ (Lowy, 14). As Lowy writes:
‘That mythopoetic interiority coming from the depths cannot accept the limits imposed by rationalist reason; it is the realm of ‘whatever forever evades consciousness,’ of ‘the beautiful disorder of the imagination’ and ‘the original chaos of human nature.’ That’s not to say that it ignores the exterior world; the new myth is also ‘a hieroglyphic expression of surrounding reality under the transfiguration of the imagination and of love.’ It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Schlegel, in these passages, intuitively identified the domain that Freud would a century later crown with the name Unconscious.’ (Lowy, 14).
This method was actively, and selectively, picked up by surrealists in the twentieth century. Like surrealism, Andre Breton believed that the idea of Romanticism as a mere artistic school was the result of neutralisation – Romanticism, to Breton, was a ‘specific state of mind or mood whose function everywhere is to instil a new generalized conception of the world’ (Lowy, 33). This Romanticist instilling of a new conception, in many ways, is what distinguishes surrealism from its most closely related predecessor, Dada.
In the summer of 1916, as the First World War was in full swing, an artist collective based out of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich published a magazine intended to document their activity (Lewer, 21). It was in this self-titled magazine that the word Dada appeared in print for the first time. ‘The next aim of the artists brought together here is the publication of an International Review,’ Hugo Ball writes in preface; ‘The review will come out in Zurich and will carry the name ‘DADA’ (‘Dada’) Dada Dada Dada Dada’ (21).
The Cabaret Voltaire was home to an ever-changing schedule of performances ranging from traditional readings and entertainment to avant-garde recitals in front of select audiences (Lewer, 25). Though little record remains of the more experimental performances, what does remain indicates that this collective was not concerned with ‘art for art’s sake’ but saw it as a ‘vehicle for the transportation of a profound and all-encompassing cultural criticism’ (Schaffner, 118). The artists were an eclectic collection who rejected war, nationalism, and the bourgeoisie. According to Hugo Ball, the cabaret’s ‘sole purpose’ was ‘to draw attention, across the barriers of war and native lands, to the few independent spirits who live for other ideals’ (Ball). In acts, distinctions between audience and performer were broken down; traditional structures organising and framing recitals were destabilised. However, The Cabaret itself was very short lived – it closed in the summer of 1916, only a few months after its performances began (Lewer, 25).
These few months, no matter how brief, likely represent the most important moment in the pre-history of surrealism. The ‘first public Dada evening’ occurred on July 14, after the closure of The Cabaret Voltaire, in a new location (Lewer, 26). At this event, artists such as Ball, Tristan Tzara, Emmy Hennings, and Richard Huelsenbeck performed music, poetry, non-verbal poetry, cubist costume, dance, and discussion (Lewer, 27). This ‘soiree’ provided the Dada movement with the attention it required to continue. Soon after this, the Dadaists quickly shifted away from performances and ‘began to fix its art as objects and texts in exhibits and journals’ (Partsch, 34).
Despite shifting focus from performance to the creation of artistic objects, the act was always core to Dada art. As Cornelius Partsch notes, the practice of Dada was ‘disruptiveness in performance and the radical separation of signifier and signified in its language’ (Partsch, 40). The embodiment of this was the ‘paradoxical, spontaneous gesture aimed at revealing the inconsistency and inanity of conventional beliefs’ – an extreme example of this is when Arthur Cravan ‘punctuated a lecture’ with seemingly random pistol shots (Rubin, 12). In a less extreme example, Tristen Tzara began experimenting with disruption and inanity by writing poetry ‘by cutting out the individual words of any newspaper article, throwing them in a bag, shaking them, and recording them in the order that they were taken out’ (Rubin, 41). As a result, it has been suggested by some critics that the process of creation is worth more attention than the objects which emerged from creation (Partsch, 39).
Dada was not a singular, unified, cohesive movement. As Tzara wrote in his Dada Manifesto 1918, ‘Dada was born of a need for independence, of a distrust toward unity. Those who are with us preserve their freedom. We recognize no theory. We have enough cubist and futurist academies: laboratories of formal ideas,’ (Tzara, 1918). The spirit of Dada was disruption and autonomy. It is more appropriate, therefore, to recognize tendencies in Dadaism, rather than an overarching structural definition. It can be stated definitively, however, that Dadaists believed that social orders of all sorts – artistic, linguistic, political, scientific – could not simply be ‘accepted as a given’ (Schaffner, 119). Attempting to prove that order could easily be otherwise became a major tendency in the practice – an active manifestation of a philosophy which challenged and destabilised structure itself (Jones, 11).
In 1919, André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Philippe Soupault launched a Dada-inspired journal called Littérature in Paris (Legge, 89). The following year, Tristan Tzara, the prominent Dada poet, moved to Paris from Zurich (89). For the next several years, Paris hosted a fairly significant Dada movement with soon-to-be surrealists at its centre. With the inspiration of Tzara, Dadaists in Paris placed significant emphasis on poetry in the early years – so much so that Elizabeth Legge argues that ‘The primary matter of Paris Dada operations was language’ (Legge, 94). In particular, this poetry purposefully disrupted, distorted, and ignored structures of grammar (96). In fact, the ‘disenchantment’ that these artists felt ‘with the cultural and political status quo was so fundamental and deep-seated that they felt they could no longer express it within the boundaries of existing artistic and communicative conventions’ (Schaffner, 118). In response, ‘adapting what they knew of the psychoanalytic method of relaxing conscious censors to release unconscious flow,’ Dada poets undertook automatic writing (98).
The nature of this approach to language can be understood by turning to semiological theories. In 1916, Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics was published for the first time. In this collection of lecture notes, Saussure suggests a science of signs, which he refers to as semiology (Saussure, 68). The influence of semiology on the surrealist project is evidenced in a 1920 essay that Jean Paulhan wrote for Littérature which deals specifically with Saussure’s semiology, ’emphasizing the arbitrary nature of words as difficult resistant things in themselves rather than transparent vehicles of what is meant’ (Legge, 94). Recognizing the arbitrariness of language is key to surrealism.
In semiological terms, a sign is an object (word, symbol, letter, icon, gesture, sound, etc.) which conveys meaning and significance (Saussure, 66). There are two fundamental aspects to the sign: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is ‘the plane’ of expression (the word) and the signified is ‘the plane’ of content (the concept/meaning) referred to (Barthes, 39). The matter of arbitrariness comes in when it is recognized that there is no natural, inherent connection between a particular signifier and the meaning that it conveys. For example, Saussure states that ‘the idea of ‘sister’ is not linked by any inner relationship to the succession of sounds s-o-r which serve as its signifier in French; that it could be represented equally by just any other sequence is proved by differences among languages and by the very existence of different languages’ (Saussure, 68). Arbitrariness does not imply lack of logic or structure in the merging of terms and concepts, but that this merging could have been done differently. Once established, however, the pairing tends to be naturalised. Playing with the ‘logic’ of sign pairing and denaturalizing it is evident in much surrealist art.
It is also important to recognize that the signified is ‘not ‘a thing’ but a mental representation of ‘the thing’’ (Barthes, 42). For example, the signifier bird refers to a particular idea which has been constructed by humans in order to understand and refer to ‘birds,’ rather than the authentic object as it exists ‘externally’ to humans. The entire concept of a bird, in essence, a metaphor. The bird itself is not a bird – it is referred to and conceptualised in that way due to the specific framework of understanding humans have constructed. The concept of bird also relies upon an endless array of other concepts which have been constructed in order to understand and refer to other aspects of the world (frameworks of biology, nature, etc.). As concepts are structured in accordance to frameworks of power, the very way the bird (and all experience) is conceptualised is catered particularly to those frameworks. In short, the specific way that the concept of bird has been constructed has certain implications. It could, for instance, cement and naturalise particular relationships between people and birds. The relevance of this to the surrealists is that the bird could, then, be conceptualised very differently and equally, perhaps more, authentically: the metaphor could be better.
In the early 1920s, Breton and a number of Parisian Dadaists began to distance themselves from the Dada movement (Legge, 99). Principles of Dadaism maintained their importance to the work of surrealists but the idea of ‘shared exception to artistic and moral rules,’ which Dada embodied, only seemed ‘temporarily satisfying’ (99) Legge writes that ‘The principal value Breton retrieved from Dada was that it had created a ‘state of perfect readiness’ from which they could now move ‘toward that which beckons us’’ (100). The emerging surrealists believed that the practice of Dada focused too entirely upon the disruption of the aforementioned frameworks and did not actively pursue alternatives (92). In his 1970 book, Surrealist Art, Sarane Alexandrian wrote that:
‘It is not true to say that surrealism was born after Dada, like a phoenix arising from its ashes. It was born during Dada, and became aware of its resources while it was in public action. Surrealism acquired a need to relate verbal or graphic delirium to an underlying cause, one less gratuitous than the total negation of everything. (Alexandrian, 46).’
After its breach with the constant negation that defined Dadaism, the surrealist movement took up the techniques and practices of Dada, such as automatic writing, and rallied them for revolution. Automatic writing, in this sense, tended to be the creation of literary works without the guidance of a preconceived plan or framework. It was, in essence, writing trains of thought driven by unconscious association. Whereas Dada tended to emphasize ‘anti-art’, the surrealist movement emphasized art’s transformative potential.
Drawing from the myth and mysticism of the Romanticist tradition, and the radical critique of anarchism and Marxism, surrealists repurposed the Dada movement to establish a new practice which intended to radically re-enchant the world. This practice is a disruption and reconstruction of the illusory nature of experience, tapping into less-structured areas of the mind in order to dissolve conceptual structures which have been imposed upon the mind by society according to already-justified and naturalised structures of perception (White, 105). As far as surrealists were concerned, at their best, ‘logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest,’ as these are the problems that they have been developed to answer (Breton, 1).
Unfortunately, radical re-enchantment did not unfold in a transformative manner when surrealism was at full force. In a matter of decades, the frameworks that surrealists rallied against intensified and concentrated, manifesting totally and brutally under the banner of Nazism. Following the war, Breton began to explicitly refer to himself as an anarchist again and was a strong supporter of the Fédération Anarchiste, which carried on the traditions of Voline and Spanish CNTs. By this time, however, the surrealist movement had petered out and been appropriated by the bourgeois world of high art. For a brief moment, however, before the darkest chapter of Europe emerged, it seemed to many that ‘the imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights’ (Breton, 1).
Perhaps, in some mystical chapter yet to come, there exists an alternative reality – a superior reality – where revolution remains ‘the province of poets,’ where the freedom of dream is more than just glimpsed, and where the spirit of liberation manages to unfurl entirely and without restraint: ‘This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass. The earth, draped in its verdant cloak, makes as little impression upon me as a ghost. It is living and ceasing to live which are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere.’ (Breton, 1).
For further reading, see: The russian revolution of 1917: The Dada counterpoint