André Breton: 1968, 1996, 2012

To mark André Breton’s birthday—February 19, 1896—Criticism &c. presents here an excerpt from an essay by Julien Gracq, author of The Castle of Argol and Balcony in the Forest, which was written on the 100th anniversary of Breton’s birth and was printed in Le Monde. This English translation appeared in the journal L’Esprit Createur.

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Back to Breton (excerpts)

by Julien Gracq; Translated by Stamos Metzidakis

L’Esprit Createur, Vol. 36, No. 4, Winter 1996

I DO NOT BELIEVE that Breton would have truly welcomed the celebration of the centennial of his birth. Even though he may, in his own manner, have had something to do with the sacred, he had little interest in official, commemorative rites. Forever at odds with History, Surrealism, from the beginning, was never friendly with Memory, that impediment to a total receptivity of what could be, the blank page where revelation alone can be inscribed with all its power of renewal. Breton was utterly prospective, tracking what was emerging, rarely inclined to recapitulate; he was not a back-seat rider. Come to think of it, was he actually born in 1896? What he had in common with Malraux (and this was about all) was that he appeared relatively untouched by his childhood, which he more or less rejected as shabby, failed, too immature. He was really born around 1916: that is when things began to happen for him, towards the end of his adolescence, and the years immediately following.

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Breton died in September 1966: a Fall burial that left me with an almost spring-like memory. Considerably more people attended than were ex- pected, many lovers bringing a flower and holding hands. And, shortly thereafter, the dislocation, then, dissolution of the group marked the official end of the movement. And yet…

…The black humor that sometimes nests within the dates of a biography alone prevented, less than some two years from then, an encounter which still leaves one imagining, that of Breton with May 1968. It is more difficult than one thinks to predict the opinion Breton would have had of the student uprising. Basically, Breton did not like success; he mistrusted it, he was born contrary (“All ideas that triumph rush to their demise”). He might have been violently shaken by the inimitable trivialization, indeed, caricature, of those ideas. From the start, moreover, he had structured his group, not in a way to enlarge more fully its communication, but as an order of chosen depositors, having taken an oath to “absolute Surrealism,” in a word, rather than as propagandists, an elite phalanx garrisoning around him the “château étoilé.” I do not believe he ever seriously took into account the possibility of an actual surrealistic wildfire, really putting the masses into motion. But it is certain that, without always knowing it, the unforeseen libertarian explosion of May ’68, which, more than a political revolution, sought to change life according to the law of desire, here and now—”immediately and without delay”—and which so strongly disconcerted the entire institutionalized Left, even so far as within the fabric of its language and formulae, had to do much more with Breton than with Sartre, or especially Aragon, both of whom attempted to have themselves anointed by the resurrected Sorbonne. One day, sometime after the “events,” Georges Pompidou [1] told me, “Actually, what happened there was all about Breton.”

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Has [Surrealism] finished its journey? The world which is now being made—or unmade—in front of our eyes, after having explored in vain the classic paths of political revolution, is no doubt one of those which Breton would have cursed with the least amount of reservation, and also with the most justification. The instantaneous monetary standardization of all human activity—the promotion of art on the market level—the advent of a society exclusively obsessed with “uses” of money and mer- chandise production, in which, according to Thomas Pollack Nageire in the Exchange (Claudel), “everything is worth so much,” headed, moreover, towards cretinization by the media and political economy, where both the unemployed worker’s daily news and the intelligentsia’s magazine, by the game of “supplements” which swell up and are transformed before the naked eye into a Small Echo of TV and Stock Market news, make it no longer unreasonable to imagine, in the face of such a situation destined to trivialization or rejection, that one day Surrealism will have an heir, a movement whose form we cannot predict, one undoubtedly rid of its small sins, which it had overly caressed, trinkets of a time that greatly contributed to its aging: Czarist proclamations (“oukazes”), puerile provocations, exquisite cadavers, metaphysical spoonerisms, letters to “voyantes” and other “gadgets” from the Irrational. How can we know? The lack of a response from religions has nearly become as obvious as the caricature of “cults.” Surrealism, which played a little hide-and-seek with history, and which history did not really serve well, has not “gone by” the cafe, as one used to think; rather, it has demonstrated an unexpected tenacity to survive while in hibernation. For Breton’s Manes, a century after his birth, a quarter-century after his group became officially deceased, the perspectives are wide-open.

[1] Georges Pompidou (1911-1974) was Charles de Gaulle’s political shadow and stalking horse. He successfully negotiated the Grenelle Agreement with the unions that brought the mass strikes of May 1968 to an end. (Note by Criticism &c.)

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