To mark André Breton’s birthday, I am sharing a brief excerpt from Anna Balakian’s biography, André Breton, Magus of Surrealism. Balakian was the first American scholar to study Surrealism (her Literary Origins of Surrealism was published in 1947) and despite the fact that she was an academic, she can be characterized as demonstrating a strongly partisan (in the best sense of the word) commitment to it throughout her life. I particularly like the alternate rendering of Clair de terre here, more commonly translated as Earthlight. This passage appears in the book’s first chapter, “The Man and his Background.”
Besides the family relationships that helped shape the temperament of André Breton, there is also a strong ecological influence: the haunting presence of the sea in his background is as dominant as the sense of the North. It is Lorient, and not Tinchebray, that looms significant. Years later Aragon, in his quixotic account of the youthful adventures he shared with Breton, describes his companion in the context of this fundamental imprint of the sea:
Surely he was born at the end of a long river, in some port of the Ocean for his eyes to have had that grey brilliance and his voice to have acquired the resonance of shells when he said: “the sea.” Somewhere in his childhood slumbered docks at low tide of a heavy summer evening, and on the rippleless waters of pools, the sailboats that refuse to leave before the rising of the breeze.*
Lorient left in the mind of the child André teeming images of the ocean, of shells, of fish, of sun alternating with mist and rain, of estuaries, of fascinating stones (on which the sea has wrought its crystallizing metamorphoses). The luminous and unpredictable phenomena of nature, which impressed him in his earliest childhood, will motivate his writing; not analysis of human associations and behavior, but the revelation of the convulsive character of nature will engross him. One brought up at the seashore can realize perhaps more than any other the enigmatic character that nature assumes in the mingling of water and land and in the unexpected changes of the skies. The child who grew up on the sands of Lorient will forever seek out shining stones, apocalyptic skylights, brilliant stars in unimpeded horizons, fluctuations from mobility to serenity, the glow of earth and water under the sun; he will catch this radian in the title of his first collection of poems, Clair de terre (“Earthshine”). This exciting sense of the natural forces of the universe will surge spontaneously from his early writings; it will form a network of poetic metaphors that shape, rather than merely express, his sensibilities. The fish—for the child it is the prize, the Golden Fleece with which the humble fisherman-Argonauts return—becomes the bridge, the fascinating hyphen between land and water, and the astrological sign of André Breton, born on February 19, 1896.
*Aragon, Anicet, Gallimard (Livre de Poche), Paris, 1969, p. 114.