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Editor: Ira Mark Milne
Date: 2009
Document Type: Topic overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Brief biography
Pages: 25
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About this Person
Born: December 14, 1895 in Saint-Denis, France
Died: November 18, 1952 in Paris, France
Nationality: French
Occupation: Poet
Other Names: Grindel, Eugène; de Hault, Jean; Hervent, Maurice; du Hault, Jean; Grindel, Eugene Émile Paul
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c. 1919

The strength of the surrealist movement can be attributed in large part to one man, French poet André Breton, who helped found the movement after World War I in France. Surrealism was a reaction to Dadaism, which was itself a reaction to the so-called logic that dadaists believed had caused the war. Surrealism, however, sought a more constructive way to rebel against rational thought than the more negative Dadaism. Drawing on the psychoanalytic studies of Sigmund Freud, the surrealists tried to expand the mind's potential by reconciling the apparently contradictory states of dream and reality. In a series of sometimes dangerous experiments, Breton and others attempted to put themselves in a hallucinatory state, in which they believed they could tap their subconscious minds directly and extract pure thoughts, untainted by the conscious mind and its rational constraints. Dadaists and surrealists were also fascinated with suicide and idealized this act, argues critic Leonid Livak—some in theory, some in fact. Since the surrealists prized individual revelation over conscious forms, themes varied among the poets, although many wrote about some form of love or nature.

While Breton and Philippe Soupault wrote The Magnetic Fields, considered by many to be the first truly surrealist text, in 1919, it was not until 1924, when Breton published his Manifesto of Surrealism, that the movement was officially founded. Breton ruled the group like a dictator, and his strict adherence to surrealist principles
Surrealism Page 778  |  Top of Articleled to many expulsions and defections from the group. Nevertheless, the surrealists, who also included Paul Éluard and Robert Desnos, flourished for the next two decades, until the outbreak of World War II. Although the majority of the group's members were poets, some tried their hand at prose as well. Breton's novel Nadja was one of the most successful attempts. Surrealism inspired related movements in painting, sculpture, drama, and film, and has had a lasting influence on the creative arts as a whole.


Louis Aragon (1897-1982)

Louis Aragon was born October 3, 1897, in Paris, France. As one of the leading proponents of Dadaism and Surrealism, Aragon helped Breton and others to inspire creative freedom in the arts. Like that of many other surrealists, Aragon's poetry was initially published in the journal Litterature, which Aragon helped found and edit with Breton and Soupault. However, Aragon's most famous works are his novels, including Paris Peasant. Aragon and the other surrealists joined the French Communist Party in 1930. Although the surrealists left the party five years later after witnessing Stalin's atrocities, Aragon rejoined the party, renounced Surrealism, and produced mainly political works for several years. He attempted to write other works later in his career, but at that point, most critics only knew him for his politically oriented fictions. Aragon died December 24, 1982, in Paris.

André Breton (1896-1966)

Although he had help founding the Surrealism movement, in many ways André Breton acted alone. Born February 19, 1896, in Tinchebray, France, Breton was a medical student when he was drafted into World War I. There he served in the psychiatric wards, where he began his studies in neurology and psychology. Disillusioned by the horrors of war, Breton joined the dadaists at the war's end but left to start the surrealist movement, which he saw as a more constructive response to the war than Dadaism. He experimented avidly with automatic writing and other self-induced hypnotic and hallucinatory states attempting to reach the subconscious mind. Although he had founded and edited the journal Litterature with Aragon and Soupault in 1919, it
Louis Aragon Louis Aragon(The Library of Congress) was not until 1924 that he published his first of three manifestos of Surrealism. In the first manifesto, he laid out the rules that would-be surrealists should follow to tap into their subconscious. Breton was the movement's main promoter and he ran the group with a dictator-like control, expelling anyone who did not play by his rules. With his influence, surrealist painters such as Dalí achieved greater recognition through exhibitions. In 1930, Breton led the surrealists in joining the French Communist Party, although they did not stay long once they saw the atrocities Stalin was committing in the name of communism. When World War II broke out, Breton was interrogated by the Nazis about his activities, at which point he moved first to the French colony of Martinique, then to the United States, where he spent most of the war years. Breton died of a heart attack on September 28, 1966, in France.

René Crevel (1900-1935)

RenéCrevel was born August 10, 1900, in Paris. Crevel's childhood was not an easy one; his father committed suicide when Crevel was only fourteen years old. In 1921 Crevel joined the surrealist movement but was kicked out by Breton in 1923 for being homosexual. In 1926, Crevel was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He rejoined Page 779  |  Top of Articlethe surrealist movement in 1929 in an effort to bring communists and surrealists closer. Crevel committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning on June 18, 1935. He was driven to despair following a conference at which he failed to unite communists and surrealists, and, in fact, some members of both groups came to blows. He was also in ill health. Throughout his life, Crevel struggled with his sexual identity, a topic he explored in his novels.

Robert Desnos (1900-1945)

Robert Desnos was born July 4, 1900, in Paris, France. He was published as a poet in his teens, but as an adult, he originally worked as a journalist before joining the surrealists in the 1920s. Of the entire group, Desnos was recognized as having the best ability to put himself in the trance required for automatic writing, a fact that Breton noted with pride in his first Manifesto. Desnos, like some other surrealists, pursued a flamboyant lifestyle that included sexual promiscuity and experimentation with drugs. He was also in love with a well-known singer, Yvonne George, and he wrote about her in various romantic poems. However, he is most remembered for his novel Liberty or Love!. Following the publication of this novel, Desnos pursued a more stable life. He got married, reduced his involvement with the surrealists, and even wrote his own manifesto in an attempt to win control of the surrealist movement from Breton, attempting to break Breton's formal structure. The coup failed, Desnos was expelled from the group, and he went back to his former job as a journalist. He turned to writing essays, radio scripts, film critiques, and even more traditional forms of poetry, which were looked upon with disapproval by the surrealists. Desnos worked with the French Resistance against the Nazis, was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. He died of typhoid on June 8, 1945, in the camp at Terezin, Czechoslovakia a few weeks after it was liberated.

Paul Éluard (1895-1952)

Paul Éluard, the pen name of Eugène Grindel, was born December 14, 1895, in Saint-Denis, France. Éluard contracted tuberculosis as a child and spent two years in a sanatorium, where he started writing poetry. When World War I began, Éluard joined the French military, first serving as a hospital orderly, then fighting in the trenches. After the war, Éluard met Breton and others in the dadaist movement and helped to develop Surrealism. Éluard was extremely prolific, publishing more than seventy books in his lifetime. However, it was his early volumes of poetry, including Capital of Sorrow, published in 1926, that helped to establish his reputation as a poet. After the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Éluard's writings became more political, and by World War II, he had adopted a pro-socialist attitude. After the war, Éluard followed the lead of Aragon, denouncing Surrealism in favor of communism. His devotion to Stalin was so strong he wrote a poetic tribute to him. Because of his political affiliations, Éluard was denied a U.S. visa. He died of a heart attack on November 18, 1952, in Charenton-le-Pont, France.

Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960)

Pierre Reverdy was born September 11, 1889, in Narbonne in southern France to a family of sculptors. He moved to Paris in 1910 where he became involved with Dadaism, Cubism, and Surrealism. His friends included Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse. He published his first book of poetry, Poèmes en Prose, in 1915. Reverdy wrote short prose poems. He was prolific and recognized in his lifetime as a talented poet by his fellow surreal-ists. He was also a very private person. Despite this, argues critic Jennifer Pap, Reverdy maintained a poignant, pained awareness of the world around him. In 1917, Reverdy, Apollinaire, and Max Jacobs founded Nord-Sud, an important surrealist monthly journal. In 1926, Reverdy sought seclusion and left Paris to live near a monastery in Solesmes. He converted to Catholicism and continued to write poetry until his death on June 17, 1960. Two English translations of Reverdy's poetry appeared in 2007: Prose Poems, translated by Ron Padgett and Haunted House, translated by John Ashbery.

Philippe Soupault (1897-1990)

Philippe Soupault was born August 2, 1897, in Chaville, France. After serving in World War I, Soupault joined forces with Breton. Although the surrealist movement was not officially founded until 1924, in 1919, Soupault coauthored The Magnetic Fields with Breton, a work considered by many to be the first surrealist text. It is unfortunate that many people remember him for this achievement alone, since Soupault was one of the most active members of Page 780  |  Top of Articlethe group. Soupault was one of the coeditors on the journal Litterature. Also, while he still embraced the ideas behind Surrealism and incorporated juxtapositions of bizarre images into his work like the other surrealists, Soupault's poetry was noticeably more structured. Soupault left the group in the mid-1920s and traveled and wrote until 1938, when he moved to Tunisia. In the capital city of Tunis, he worked in radio and was outspoken against Hitler and the Nazis, which got him fired. Four years later, he was arrested in France for disseminating antifascist propaganda and was sentenced to six months in prison, where he wrote a psychological study of his fellow prisoners. Soupault died March 11, 1990, in Paris, France.



René Crevel's surrealist novel Babylon was published in French in 1957; an English translation (by Kay Boyle) did not appear until 1985, fifty years after Crevel's death by suicide. This novel, far from ambiguous, tells the story of a broken family: the husband abandons his wife and daughter. The wife's father, Grandpa, is a positivist, someone who believes everything can be explained rationally; he determines that his daughter should remarry. The new fiancé is very handsome—but Grandma runs off with him instead, puzzling Grandpa even further. Crevel's purpose was to affect a critique of positivism, which he does in a very funny, readable book.

Capital of Pain

Like Aragon, Paul Éluard's greatest works were written before his writings became more political in nature. Capital of Pain, originally published in 1926, is a case in point. Although Éluard had published volumes of poetry, this was one of his first volumes of surrealist poetry, and it helped to establish his reputation as a poet and bring attention to the surrealist movement. In Capital of Pain, Éluard focuses on two, diametrically opposed ideas—love and loneliness—and expounds on each with a passion and intensity for which he became famous. Invoking images of the individual and the universal, Capital of Pain was a key formative work in the poet's career. Of all of the French surrealists, Éluard was praised by critics as the most talented, and works like Capital of Pain have continued to receive favorable attention over the years.

Liberty or Love!

Liberty or Love!, Desnos's surrealist novel, was censured by a French court because of its graphic nature and the eroticism in some passages. The novel, first published in 1927, is like other surrealist novels in that it has a loose structure. The story relates a hazy series of events in which lovers Corsair Sanglot and Louise Lame drift in and out of each other's lives. Characters pop in and out of the narrative as if in a dream. The novel, which was much descriptive detail, was noted by critics for its dreamlike qualities. It was first translated into English in 1994, at which time it received favorable reviews.

The Magnetic Fields

The story behind the genesis of The Magnetic Fields (1920) is one of intense, and one could say, fanatical commitment to a cause. In 1919, Breton and Soupault were performing a number of experiments, attempting to tap into their unconscious minds through techniques such as automatic writing. At one point, they induced themselves into a hypnotic trance and began a writing session that lasted eight days. The output, a series of prose poems, was published initially in 1919 in their journal Litterature. The Magnetic Fields, considered by many to be the first surrealist text, was important to the movement's development.

Manifesto of Surrealism

Breton's first Manifesto of Surrealism, published in 1924, met with opposition. The manifesto began by criticizing current forms of writing such as the novel in very abrasive and unflattering ways, so it is no wonder that it was not liked. Although the term Surrealism was coined by his deceased friend Guillaume Apollinaire, Breton claimed (in Manifesto of Surrealism) the title for his movement and offered an official definition:

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 thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

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Andre Breton, Paul luard, Tristan Tzara, and Benjamin Peret Andre Breton, PaulÉluard, Tristan Tzara, and Benjamin Peret(© Corbis)

The manifesto featured various other items, including a list of names of the people Breton considered surrealists, an in-depth description for how to perform the method of automatic writing, and several examples illustrating what Surrealism is. Breton followed this work with two other manifestos and several other works that further defined the goals and ideals of the surrealists.

Paris Peasant

Louis Aragon's Paris Peasant was originally published in 1926. The surrealist novel employs two of the surrealists's favorite inspirational locations: a passageway at the Paris Opera and the Buttes-Chaumont Park. Paris Peasant was well received, especially by critics, who praised the novel's ability to mix realistic elements of the Paris locations with the surrealist elements of Aragon's created world. Much of the critics' favorable attention stemmed from the fact that they were used to surrealists who did not base their prose or novels on real places—which were harder to produce through automatic writing— and so Aragon's novel was a welcomed change. The novel also contained Aragon's own definition of Surrealism, which differed from Breton's definition in his Manifesto of Surrealism. Aragon emphasized (in Manifesto of Surrealism) the use of the image in a random and passionate way and believed that each image forced him "to revise the Universe."



One of the favorite themes of the French surrealists was love, particularly the ability of love to overcome reason. One of the most striking examples of this is in a scene from Desnos's prose work Deuil pour Deuil. Desnos places the narrator in a desert city of uninhabited ruins along a river. "Despite our anxiousness, no one, no one at all, came to us," the narrator says. The "us" implies that somebody is with him, although later in the poem he admits that he "was always alone in reality." The narrator blindly searches for love. "Strange sicknesses, curious customs, bell-tolling love, where have you led me? In these stones I find no trace of what I seek." He cannot find the love for which he is looking and is trapped by the "curious customs" of love, which overcome his reason.

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  • The surrealists's core philosophy involved the use of automatic writing and other methods to attempt to bypass the conscious mind and tap into the subconscious. Close your eyes and try to clear your mind of all thought, then open your eyes and write a poem, writing down the first thoughts that come into your mind. Write a report on whether you think you tapped into your subconscious mind.
  • Communism has a complex history, involving many countries. Research three important events in the history of communism and write a short paper about these events, explaining how the events came about and what effect they had on communism and the world at large.
  • The casualties of World War I were due in a large part to trench warfare the Western Front. Research the origins of trench warfare, including how and when each side created their trenches, and what effect fighting in the trenches had on soldiers. Using this information, write a few sample journal pages from the perspective of a soldier in the trenches.
  • André Breton was one of many writers and artists captured by the Germans in World War II and interrogated. Eventually he was let go and fled to the United States. Find another writer or artist who was interrogated by German forces during the war and write a one-page biography about him or her.
  • Surrealism has influenced many other arts since it was founded in the 1920s, including commercial arts including advertising. Find an advertisement from the last decade you feel has a surrealist quality and write a short report explaining why.

The narrator has mirage-like visions of caravans of beautiful women, whom he "waits for . . . tormented," but they turn out to be "old dust covered women," if they even exist at all. One suspects not, especially when he later sees "planes without pilots encircled with rounds of smoke." The planes land and three women get out, but at the end of the scene the women are gone, and the narrator repeats a variation of the opening lines of the scene, implying that he is in fact imprisoned in this dream world, where love is driving him mad.

The Human Body

Surrealists were noted for their descriptions of the human body, particularly the female body. Although these depictions are sometimes done graphically in a sexual manner, at other times, the surrealists describe parts of the body with a neutral attitude. A good example of the latter is Breton's poem "My Wife with Her Wood-Fire Hair." In the poem, Breton starts at his wife's hair and slowly works his way down her body, through her "thoughts of heatsparks" and "eyebrows like the edge of a swallow's nest," to her "champagne shoulders" and "fingers of cut hay." Each example is a vivid picture of a particular part of his wife's anatomy, and with rare exception, each image is a unique creation that sets up a picture in the reader's mind. One can envision his wife's thoughts, for example, as literal "heatsparks" that flare with electricity around her brain.


The surrealists also incorporate nature-related images in their poetry. These generally take one of two forms: isolated images representing various aspects of nature, or larger images of nature's elements. Both types can be seen in Éluard's poem "You Rise Up." An example of the first type appears halfway through the poem when the poet writes, "You sing night hymns on the strings of the rainbow." A rainbow is a positive symbol of nature, which is consistent with the overall tone of the poem, in whichÉluard sings the praises of women.

As for the second type of nature, Éluard includes three of the four elements—water, earth, and fire—elsewhere in the poem. He starts off with the two lines: "You rise up the water unfolds / You lie down the water opens." The elemental image of water often implies life, and in this case, the poet is remarking about how women are part of the process of creating life and so are one with the life-giving water, which closes and opens to accommodate the woman in the poem. This idea is reinforced in the rest of the poem first through the use Page 783  |  Top of Articleof earth: "You are the earth taking root / And on which everything is built," then through fire:

You sacrifice time To the eternal youth of the exact flame Which veils nature in reproducing it.

In the earth image, the woman takes root, providing a solid foundation from which to build humanity. In the fire image, the woman sacrifices the majority of her life to the bearing and raising of children, a cycle that repeats itself eternally. It should be noted, however, that even though this poem seems to make use of traditional contexts for images, in many cases, the word a surrealist uses does not always match its traditional meaning.


Automatic Writing

In his Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton laid out the methods of the would-be surrealist, including a technique called automatic writing, which the surrealists used to try to obtain the most pure information, free from the bindings of rational thought. "Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can," says Breton. He advises people to "write quickly" about whatever comes into their minds, and "fast enough so that you will not remember what you're writing and be tempted to reread what you have written." Breton also notes that of all of the surrealists, Desnos was the group's best practitioner, and that "Desnos speaks surrealist at will."


Poets use language in their works to create different kinds of images, in a literal or figurative manner. An image can represent physical objects, emotions, metaphysical ideas, and virtually anything else that can be experienced in the real world through one or more of the five senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing, or taste. A literal image is conveyed in straight language that does not imply a hidden meaning. For example, in Paul Éluard's poem "What the Laborer Says Is Always Beside the Point," the second line reads, "A man on a bench in a street who avoids the crowd." There is nothing ambiguous about this image. As each separate part of the line is read, the image in the reader's mind becomes more concrete.

Much of surrealist poetry relies on figurative images—images conveyed by metaphors, similes, or other forms of figurative language—all of which employ ordinary words in a manner that imparts a new meaning. For example, from the same poem by Éluard:

There are demolitions sadder than a penny Indescribable and yet the sun moves away from them singing While the sky dances and makes its honey.

Éluard's language has specific meanings when looked at in context. The "demolitions" caused by war are more depressing than a penny, which represents the lowest monetary value in currency, and so is almost worthless, as are these demolished buildings. While the buildings are so destroyed that they are "indescribable," their darkness does not effect the sun. The sun, a bright object that is usually given positive connotations—in this case it sings—continues to move away, or rise and set, as it always has, taking no notice of the demolished buildings. Likewise for the dancing sky (also a positive feeling), which continues to make its honey, or rain, as it always has.Éluard uses figurative language to personify—or attribute human feelings to—inanimate objects like buildings and natural objects like the sun and sky, conveying a sense of the inevitable nature of war and its ineffectiveness in the grand scheme of things.


In addition to imagery, the surrealists relied heavily on the positioning of their words to create the effects that they sought. In many cases, poets would place unrelated, often contradictory words next to each other in an attempt to achieve an image that reconciled dreams with reality. This device led to some very bizarre images. For example, in Robert Desnos's poem "Meeting," he writes:

    A very learned doctor sews the hands of the praying woman
    assuring her she will sleep.
    A very skilful cook mixes poisons in my plate
    and assures me I will laugh.

These words are obviously juxtaposed so that they contradict each other. Doctors normally heal, so if they sew somebody's hands together, that person will likely cry out in pain, not go to sleep. Likewise, if somebody is poisoned, they are not likely to laugh, they are likely to die. However, even though the lines do not make sense, they create images in the reader's mind and convey a sense of betrayal. The speaker of these lines is being ill-treated, although he or she is assured by the respected professionals that everything is Page 784  |  Top of Articlegoing to be all right. One possible interpretation is that the speaker, like those who were asked to support World War I, is being duped by the government—the learned doctors who rely on logic—and being fed poisonous lies that the war will be over quickly and that citizens will rejoice when that happens.



Futurism was a flamboyant literary and artistic movement that developed in France, Italy, and Russia from 1908 through the 1920s and is an immediate precursor to Surrealism. Futurist theater and poetry abandoned traditional literary forms. In their place, followers of the movement attempted to achieve total freedom of expression through bizarre imagery and deformed or newly invented words. The Futurists were self-consciously modern artists who attempted to incorporate the appearances and sounds of modern life into their work. Futurist writers include Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Wyndham Lewis, Guillaume Apollinaire, Velimir Khlebnikov, and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Surrealist Art

Surrealist painters and writers shared a number of influences, including Dadaism. However, one of the most important art influences was the early work of Giorgio de Chirico—an Italian painter who helped found a style of metaphysical painting with his famous series of unique, barren city landscapes, which he started painting in 1910. Through his use of contrasting light and shadow and his juxtaposition of objects, Chirico's paintings suggested a dark, unknown evil.

Breton supported surrealist art as well as literature. In issues of his magazine La Révolution Surréealiste, Breton routinely published illustrations from such artists as Max Ernst and André Masson. The biggest promotion of the surrealist artists, however, came through exhibitions. In 1925, the surrealists staged their first collective exhibition in Paris, which included work from Ernst, Masson, Joan Miró, and Man Ray, founding members of the surrealist art group. Chirico's early metaphysical work was also included. It was characteristic of surrealist art that each artist had a unique style, as each painter chose to explore the ideas of Surrealism in different, personal ways, leading to many different and exciting works. The exhibition was a success, and more soon followed.

The Surrealist Gallery, a joint venture that opened in 1926, gave many Surrealist artists a permanent exhibition space. In addition to French artists like Max Ernst, André Masson, and Joan Miró, the gallery also attracted the attention of international artists. Like the French surrealist poets, Dalíwas influenced by Freud's writings. To tap into his subconscious, he induced hallucinations in himself before he began to paint. From 1929 to 1937, he created a series of dreamlike, fantastical landscapes featuring realistic objects in bizarre configurations. One of his most famous works is "The Persistence of Memory," which depicts clocks melting on tree branches in an otherwise desolate landscape. His bleak landscapes are his best-known works. After Dalíbegan creating more traditional paintings in the 1930s, Breton—who expected strict adherence to surrealist ideas—expelled Dalífrom his surrealist group.

Surrealist painting flourished until the outbreak of World War II. Periodic exhibitions were later seen in the 1960s and 1970s, as many of the original surrealist artists died and their work was shown in retrospectives. Surrealist art is still exhibited in the twenty-first century, and its influence continues to be seen.

Surrealist Film

The surrealist movement first expressed itself in film in the 1920s. Surrealist films embodied the concepts of its literary counterpart and featured oddly juxtaposed and often contradictory images, which were sometimes disturbing. The most famous film from this time period is Un Chien andalou (An Andalusian dog), released in 1928 from first-time director Luis Buñuel and painter Dalí.One of the more graphic images in the film is that of a woman slitting her eye with a razor. As English surrealist poet David Gascoyne notes in his A Short Survey of Surrealism, the film "caused much scandal and sensation at its first showings." The first of several surrealist films that eventually achieved widespread critical acclaim, Un Chien andalou continues in the early 2000s to be viewed as a classic of surrealist film.

For the next five decades, Buñuel continued making films depicting surrealist images and worlds, culminating in the 1977 film That Obscure Page 785  |  Top of ArticleObject of Desire. The surrealist influence of Buñuel and others has survived into the twenty-first century. For example, the ideas of Surrealism were modernized in Vanilla Sky—director Cameron Crowe's 2001 film starring Tom Cruise as a magazine publisher who slowly loses his hold on reality and experiences a number of surrealist visions. At the end, he realizes he has been living in a self-induced, virtual reality dream.

Surrealist Drama

Although some surrealists wrote plays, their greatest influence was not through their individual works but in the movement's influence on the theatre of the absurd, a dramatic movement in the post-World-War-II 1950s and early 1960s. The theatre of the absurd, a school informally founded through the works of a number of foreign playwrights living in Paris, was a reaction against the horrors of World War II. Like the surrealists, the absurdists valued dreamlike images over logical, rational thought. Unlike the surrealists, however, who attempted to create a positive and constructive reaction to the horror, the absurdists believed that human life was meaningless and that humans were helpless creatures, having fallen into a state of absurdity. Absurdist plays mimicked this feeling, introducing unpredictable situations or contradictory images that did not seem to make sense. Some of these plays, such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, first produced in 1953 in France, are considered classics of western literature. Other celebrated absurdist playwrights are Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, and Edward Albee.


Just as Breton did much to promote the surrealist movement in France, English poet and novelist David Gascoyne advanced the movement in the 1930s in England. In addition to translating some of the surrealist poetry from French to English, he also wrote A Short Survey of Surrealism in 1935. In this book, Gascoyne analyzes the development of Surrealism, offers commentary on Breton's first and second manifestos of Surrealism, and discusses the work of other major surrealist poets.

Along with publicizing the movement through his works of history, criticism, and translations, Gascoyne's own poetry reflects the influence of the surrealists. His book of poetry titled Man's Life Is This Meat, published in 1936, was one of the most important surrealist works in England. However, Gascoyne was not as interested in the subconscious as Breton and others, instead focusing on more mystical elements. His poems in the late 1930s and early 1940s show his increasing interest in religion, which dominated his later poetry.


World War I

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, made a fateful trip to Sarajevo, capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he and his wife were assassinated. The occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary led to growing unrest among people in the region who wanted to become part of Serbia once again. The assassination was staged with the help of Serbia, which also wished to reclaim Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Norman Davies notes, in Europe: A History, the quick consequences of the assassination, and the revelation that Serbia was involved. "Within four weeks, the gunshots of Sarajevo brought Europe's diplomatic and military restraints crashing to the ground," Davies writes. On July 28, exactly one month after the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. An extensive system of preexisting alliances swiftly pulled most other European countries into the war, escalating the conflict. Eventually, Europe, parts of Asia, and the United States joined the war, aligning themselves either with the pro-Serbian Allies or with the Central powers, which supported Austria-Hungary.

When World War I began in August 1914, both sides believed that with their modern weapon technologies such as hand grenades, tanks, long-range artillery, and poison gas, the war would be over quickly and with minimal casualties. Davies notes the prevailing logic that dominated people's thinking: "It was going to be over by Christmas. Conventional wisdom held that modern warfare would be more intense than in the past, but more decisive." In reality, however, the war raged for four years, leading to an estimated eight million dead and even more wounded.

One of the two main lines of fighting, the Western Front, ran through France, which experienced some of the bloodiest battles in the war. The front was defined by the extensive trench that ran along its entire length on both

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  • 1910s: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known to his supporters by the name Lenin, leads the Russian revolution, overthrowing the czar and instituting a dictatorship of the proletariat—or common people—led by himself. Over the next several years Lenin works to build the Communist Party into an organization that can effect worldwide revolution, and tries to get all separate communist parties to commit to the Soviet cause.

    Today: Many formerly communist countries, including the former Soviet Union, employ democratic systems of government in the early 2000s.

  • 1910s: During World War I, in an effort to rally support at home, various countries on both sides rely on printed propaganda and other methods of psychological warfare that demonize their enemy.

    Today: After an attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., that leads to war in Afghanistan, Hollywood capitalizes on American citizens' patriotism by releasing a number of war-themed films.

  • 1910s: American poet John Masefield accompanies the U.S. volunteer ambulance service in France, sending many letters to his wife that convey his graphic observations of the effects of war. His writings are published in The Old Front Line (1917) and other books.

    Today: As the United States wages war in Afghanistan, people receive up-to-the-minute updates from on-site reporters, whose video footage and commentary is transmitted to the public through radio, satellite television, and the Internet.

sides. Allied and Central soldiers occupied their respective trenches—which were often close to each other—and with a series of battles, each side attempted to drive their opponent out of his trench and force the line back, with a flurry of grenades and machine-gun fire. The results were horrific. Davies observes of the three most bloody battles: "the loss of life could be counted in tens of thousands per hour or hundreds per square yard."

For years the battle in the trenches was a virtual stalemate, and as the body count rose, both sides added reinforcements to maintain the trenches. "Here was a mindless tragedy which no one had foreseen, and which no one knew how to stop," says Davies.

Dadaism and Sigmund Freud

After World War I, the dadaists tried to expose the perverse thinking. They believed that logic and other organized systems of thinking had created the horrors of war and responded to the war's meaningless slaughter with literature and art that was equally meaningless and created intentionally without logic. The dadaist movement, which had been founded in Switzerland in 1916 by a group of European artists and writers, spread to other areas in Europe, including France, where Breton became one of the willing converts.

As a medical student drafted to work in the psychiatric wards during the war, Breton had seen firsthand the effects of war on the human mind and wished to rebel against the logic that had caused the war. However, Breton soon became tired of the negative, meaninglessness of Dadaism, and sought a more positive and constructive means to stage his rebellion. Breton had studied the work of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and was particularly interested in Freud's theories of the unconscious mind. Drawing on Freud's studies, Breton and others formed the surrealist movement. In 1924, Breton defined the group's guiding principles in his Manifesto of Surrealism.

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Communism and World War II

Although the surrealist movement initially began as a form of literary expression, political unrest in Europe forced many sociopolitical and cultural groups to align themselves with other groups. In 1930, Breton announced the surrea-lists's decision to join the French Communist Party in his second Manifesto of Surrealism.It was his hope that the greater Communist Party, which had its headquarters in Moscow in the Soviet Union, would adopt the surrealist way of thinking and apply it to politics, creating a totally liberated society. However, five years later, most of the surrealists left the Communist Party after witnessing the bloody acts Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin perpetrated in the name of communism.

Davies claims many of these acts were part of Stalin's political strategy: "Innocent victims were rounded up in their homes and villages; others were charged with imaginary offences of 'sabotage,' 'treason,' or 'espionage,' and tortured into confession." As part of Stalin's scare tactics, many of these victims were put on trial to discourage others from rebelling against him. Breton and others were some of the first to publicly denounce these trials.

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, another dictator, Germany's Adolf Hitler, invaded and conquered much of Europe. When Hitler's Nazis invaded France, the surrealists broke up, and many of them fled to other European countries or overseas.


Surrealism was a movement that sought to abandon all organized systems that normal literature followed, so it is tough to criticize the works as literature. Critic Mary Ann Caws notes this in the introduction to her book, The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism: "Dada and surrealism, which consider themselves literature's opposite, cannot be (or should not be) theorized about, exemplified, and handled at an efficient arm's length." In addition, Caws observes that Breton himself was against criticism from outsiders: "Breton firmly believed in the principle of internal criticism, and on several occasions he brilliantly demonstrated it."

To make matters more difficult, Surrealism was intended to be a movement of individual revelation for each writer. As a result, the writings were widely different in theme, style, and form, making it hard to criticize the movement as a whole. Because of this, critics have tended to follow one of two paths. Either they have commented on the ideas behind the movement itself, or they have commented on the individual surrealist writer.

The ideas behind the movement were expressed formally in Breton's Manifesto of Surrealism. As David Gascoyne reports in his A Short Survey of Surrealism in 1935, it was not well received: "It is not in the least surprising that Breton's manifesto should have aroused a considerable sensation. A great deal of animosity and blind opposition, also."

David Gascoyne discusses how Breton's absolute adherence to the rigid ideals of Surrealism further alienated him personally, not just from critics, but also from members of the surrealist group, who were "unable to maintain the standards of disinterestedness and non-conformity that surrealism demands."

As for Breton's writings themselves, Balakian notes in her entry for the Dictionary of Literary Biography that even though he was an able poet, most people "associate him chiefly with his work, Nadja." Breton's intent with this work was to undermine novels which, as he states in his Manifesto of Surrealism, "are nothing but so many superimposed images taken from some stock catalogue, which the author utilizes more and more whenever he chooses." Still, as Balakian observes, "instead of destroying the novel as Breton had hoped, he contributed strongly to the shaping of the antinovel as a form."

Breton's contemporaries have received a mixed bag of criticism about their works. In the case of Philippe Soupault, one of the original and most famous surrealists—even though he was not with the group as long as others—the criticism has been very one-sided. J. H. Matthews, one of the foremost surrealist critics, notes the peculiar situation surrounding Soupault, who in 1919 was the cowriter of The Magnetic Fields, considered by many to be the first truly surrealist text: "[Soupault] is remembered as having written, with Breton, a book cited by many but read by few. Meanwhile, his other surrealist publications have not been subjected to scrutiny."

The most critically acclaimed of the surreal-ists, at least in poetry, was Paul Éluard. Georges Page 788  |  Top of Article
Haze Holes in White, surrealistic painting by Herbert Bayer, 1936 Haze Holes in White, surrealistic painting by Herbert Bayer, 1936(© Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz / Art Resource, NY) Lemaitre writes in his book From Cubism to Surrealism in French Literature that Éluard was "certainly the most richly gifted poet of the whole surrealist group." Lemaitre points out that the themes in Éluard's poetry focus on two contradictory ideas, loneliness and love: "Love is viewed by him as a mystic center of blazing forces, a fiery nucleus of passionate vibrations, diffusing energy throughout the whole world in ardent and pulsating waves."

Lemaitre is not so praising of Desnos, in whose works, "One would search vainly ...for the abstract metaphysical quality which characterizes most of Éluard's productions." Lemaitre goes even further, criticizing the poet's use of particularly perverse forms, which "aroused from their heavy slumber, twist and turn ignominiously, releasing in their convulsive spasms an acrid and suffocating stench."

The poetry of Aragon has also commonly been viewed as negative, due to its use of particularly violent words and its spirit of protest. These elements became especially strong when Aragon committed himself to the causes of the Communist Party.


Ryan D. Poquette

Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette explores Paul Éluard's use of imagery in his poem "First in the World" as an illustration of Surrealism's primary goal.

In his definitive work Manifesto of Surrealism, published in 1924, André Breton set the guidelines that future members of the surrealist movement would follow. Breton maintained tight control over these guidelines and promptly expelled any writer who did not observe them. Although the list of expelled members would eventually include Paul Éluard, who abandoned Surrealism for communism, Éluard was originally one of Breton's favorite writers, and one whom Breton thought exemplified the principles of Surrealism. In addition, of all the original surrealists, Éluard is the one poet praised most often by critics. For these reasons, Éluard's poetry serves as a good example of Breton's concepts. In one case in particular, the poem "First in the World," Éluard's imagery illustrates

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  • Linda Bolton's Art Revolutions: Surrealism (2000) features brief text overviews of the surrealist art movement, including reproductions of famous works. The book also contains a time line and museum information.
  • The Interpretation of Dreams (1901), Sigmund Freud's landmark book, was one of the main influences on French Surrealism. The book outlines his theory of the unconscious forces in dreams.
  • Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (1998), edited by Penelope Rosemont and belonging to the Surrealist Revolution series, features nearly three hundred surrealist texts by ninety-six women from twenty-eight countries. The anthology, the first of its kind, also discusses the significance of women's contributions to Surrealism and gives a basic primer on the ideas behind the movement.
  • Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism (2001), by Miryam Sas, explores how the ideas and practices of Surrealism and other avant-garde styles of writing were transferred to Japan in the early twentieth century.

the central goal in Surrealism—the attempt to reconcile the dream world with reality.

"I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak." With these words in his Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton introduced a concept built upon both the dream research of Sigmund Freud and Breton's own self-induced, hallucinatory experiments. Over the course of his manifesto, Breton defines the various tools the surrealists used to achieve this new "absolute reality," the most important of which is the surrealist image. Although Breton admits that there are "countless kinds" of

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these images, he places a repeated emphasis on the words themselves: "Words, groups of words which follow one another, manifest among themselves the greatest solidarity." In other words, the words in a surrealist poem are connected, and follow a pattern. However, the greater meaning derived from this pattern does not always resemble reality. As Frederick Brown notes in "Breton and the Surrealist Movement," these poems create "a locked, reflexive universe where language exists, to suppose the impossible, on its own terms ...conveying no feeling, no experience, no image felt, experienced, or imagined outside itself."

Inside the microcosm of the poem, the images themselves define the characteristics and boundaries of the poem's world. Like a dream, these rules often differ from the natural laws of our own world. Éluard's poem "First in the World," originally published in his collection Capital of Sorrow, draws conspicuous attention to the surrealists' plan of merging the dream world with reality, a transformation that takes place over the course of the poem itself. In the first stanza, or group of lines, the poem describes the real, human world:

    Prisoner of the field, frenzied in agony,
    The light hides on you, see the sky:
    It closed its eyes to attack your dream,
    It closed your dress to break your chains.

The "prisoner" is the reader, the person to whom the poem is addressed. By addressing the poem directly to the reader, Éluard grabs the reader's attention and lets him or her know what he is about to discuss is of vital importance. In this case, the poet is informing his readers that they are enslaved in the real world, and he does so in a sermon-like way. Through his words, Éluard invokes images of slavery and freedom. The prisoner is "of the field," which is a common area where slaves have toiled in the past, and is Page 790  |  Top of Article"in agony," a common condition for slaves. The hiding "light" that used to be in "the sky" would in many traditional poems mean daylight or the sun, a traditional sign of goodness. However, in this surrealist poem, the meaning is skewed, and the light becomes a symbol for reality, in which the prisoner is enslaved. When viewed in this context, the slavery imagery throughout the rest of the first stanza makes sense.

In the third line the poet discusses the "dream" of his readers, which is that the ideal life can be found in the real world. When reality retreats, however, it attacks this notion. Although this is a violent change for the prisoner, it is nevertheless for his or her own good, because the absence of reality redeems prisoners, by breaking the "chains."

In the absence of reality, or light, the poem and reader descend into the dream world, reality's opposite. As the second stanza shows, the characteristics of this world are strange to the prisoner:

    Before the tied wheels
    A fan laughs out loud.
    In the treacherous nets of the grass
    The roads lose their reflexion.

In this dream reality, all of the familiar hallmarks of civilization are gone. The "tied wheels" referred to in the first line of this stanza invoke the image of a car that cannot move. In the next line, the poet informs the reader that somebody or something—the word fan can mean either the device used for cooling or a person who is fond of something—is laughing, presumably at the car that is stuck. In the third line, the stuck car is revealed to be located in the "nets of the grass" that inhabit this world. This "treacherous" grass also swallows up the roads, which are now buried and so cannot reflect images or ideas.

The composite, surrealist image created by these four lines is one of nature replacing technology. In this dream world there is no place for modern technology like cars and roads—which Éluard's readers would find a comforting part of their reality. Instead the prisoner, now a dreamer, must adapt to a new set of rules and must throw out the familiarities that he or she is used to if the prisoner wants to make the most of this new world. Éluard's depiction of a disoriented dreamer who has just arrived in an imaginary world follows closely with Breton's observations about most of society, which he expressed in his Manifesto. Says Breton, "I have always been amazed at the way an ordinary observer lends so much more credence and attaches so much more importance to waking events than to those occurring in dreams." In Éluard's hands, the uncomfortable dreamer, like society, is yanked out of the reality of everyday life, and forced to accept the strange reality of the dream world.

After the dreamer arrives in this imaginary reality on earth, one of the four elements, the poet next summons images of another element, water:

    Can't you take the waves
    Whose barges are almonds
    In your warm coaxing palm
    Or in the ringlets of your head?

In this stanza, the poet begins to challenge his readers, taunting them with the powers they could have but currently do not possess. Unlike the poet, his readers cannot harness the sea—in which another symbol of technology, the barge, or ship, has been replaced by almonds—and coax it into their hands or their hair. Without letting go of technology and the familiar reality of the logical waking world, Éluard's readers will not be able to attain the godlike powers that the poet seems to possess. These prisoners, trapped by their familiarity with the established systems of logic and reason of the waking world, fail to see that worlds where almonds float on the sea like ships and oceans can be contained in the palm of one's hand are nevertheless valid and can be dominated. In her book Twentieth-Century French Avant-Garde Poetry, 1907-1990, Virginia A. La Charité observes that in Éluard's poetry, "while the image may defy reason and logic in its absurdity, it is not incomprehensible and so becomes both reasonable and logical." In other words, the images that Éluard describes create a picture in readers' minds that is definable, and so is imbued with its own sense of reason and logic.

In the next stanza, Éluard continues to taunt the reader, moving to the next largest, natural arena to demonstrate his powers, the heavens themselves:

    Can't you seize the stars?
    Stretched on the rack you resemble them,
    In their nest of fire you dwell
    And your light multiplies from them.

The dreamer still has not mastered the peculiar reason and logic of this imaginary world, which allows for the seizing of the stars themselves. Because of this, the dreamer is still a prisoner. In this stanza, Éluard says that the Page 791  |  Top of Articleprisoner is being tortured on "the rack," a situation that once again implies captivity and domination. Like the stars in this world, which form a "nest of fire," the prisoner is immobile and therefore can be dominated by people like the poet, who have accepted and embraced the possibilities of this dream reality. In fact, lacking the ability to cope with this world, the reader becomes one of the stars, and the reader's reality, "the light," begins to be defined by them. In other words, over the course of four stanzas, the reader has traded a prison in the real world for one in the dream world, failing to recognize the possibilities that the latter has to offer.

With this stanza, Éluard completes the pattern he set up in the dream world. He starts out small on land, then goes to the ocean, which can be contained in the palm of his hand, then expands to include the universe itself. He does this in a dreamlike fashion, without any transition other than the spaces between the stanzas. While the imagery is rather bizarre, it still follows a general pattern, an idea that demonstrates another of Breton's observations about dreams, from his Manifesto: "Within the limits where they operate . . . dreams give every evidence of being continuous and show signs of organization."

In the first part of the last stanza of the poem, Éluard brings the reader back out of the dream world into reality, although it is a struggle:

    From the gagged dawn only one cry wants to rush out,
    A turning sun streams under the bark,
    It will be imprinted on your closed eyelids.

The waking reality, which is beginning to return, is "gagged," although it wants to "cry" out to the dreamer, and begins to slowly exert its influence, marking the dreamer's "closed eyelids." However, as Éluard notes in the final line, "Sweet one, when you sleep, night mingles with day." With this pronouncement, the poet announces to the reader that the two realities—dreams and real life—are intertwined. The "night" of the dream land will mix with the "day" of reality into one surreality. In this way, Éluard states that the ultimate goal of surrealists—to reconcile dreams and reality—has been achieved, and that by fighting it, one will only end up imprisoned, either in the real world or the dream world.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Surrealism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Surrealist painter Salvador Dali Surrealist painter Salvador Dali(Charles Hewitt / Getty Images)

Leonid Livak

In the following essay, Livak discusses the pervasive motif of suicide among the discourse of Surrealists and Dadaists in post-World War I France.

The cult of artistic and existential evasion in Dada and surrealism made suicide a leitmotif of literary life in inter-war France. Dadaists and surrealists exploited suicide as a figure of evasion from reality, from social and moral conventions, and from the "bourgeois" concepts of talent, ambition, and remuneration associated with literature. Galvanized by the "intolerable malaise" of the war experience (Soupault, Mémoires 1914-1923), André Breton, Philippe Soupault, and Louis Aragon questioned the very validity of literary activity. In the first issue of their ironically entitled review, Littérature (1919), the upcoming poets asked French literati: "Why are you writing?" In 1924, the young critic and novelist Marcel Arland suggested that the whole spiritual atmosphere shared by his peers was

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similar to the Romantic "malady of the century" ("Nouveau Mal du siècle"). Since Dada and surrealism were seen as the products of a "new malady of the century," their suicidal tendencies recalled those in the Romantic "malady."

Thus, in his essays "Le Suicide en littérature" (1930) and "L'Art de mourir" (1932), Paul Morand argued that the deaths of many contemporary avant-garde artists were as esthetically motivated as the suicides of Werther's admirers. Victor Crastre also thought that the 1929 suicide of the former dadaist Jacques Rigaut "echoed Werther's gunshot" because "Dada and surrealism clearly affirmed the value of suicide" ("Jacques Rigaut"). In the 1979 preface to his novel En Joue! (1925), which had anticipated a number of suicides in the milieu of the French avant-garde, Philippe Soupault, a veteran of both artistic movements, wrote that he chronicled an époque in which "the sons of the bourgeoisie failed to overcome the insecurity, anxiety, and chaos of the post-war years." The present article will explore the place of suicide in the mythology and artistic praxis of the French avant-garde between the two world wars. I contend that many French literati involved in the activities of Dada and/or surrealism viewed suicide as an ideal means of evasion from reality conceived by the positivist theory and as an ultimate artistic statement, a "lived poem" far superior to a "written poem" by virtue of its "realism" and "sincerity."


Choosing their "ancestors" from among those artists who seemed to have realized literally the ideal of evasion, dadaists and surrealists were profoundly influenced by the personal mythology of Arthur Rimbaud, the Count of Lautreámont, Jacques Vaché, and Arthur Cravan. According to these models, one could escape the vanity of art through complete "silence," realize one's anti-social stance by leaving society, and flee positivist reality in dreams, the unconscious, drugs, and death. In the cultural mythology of the French avant-garde, Rimbaud and Lautréamont incarnated the ideal of artistic, social, and existential evasion. Their personal myths provided a paradigm for life-in-poetry. André Breton, who saw no value in literature if it was not supported by the writer's attitude to life, wrote that "Rimbaud was a surrealist by virtue of his lifestyle" ("Manifeste"). According to their myths, Rimbaud rejected art (he "fell silent") and society (he left for Africa), while Lautreámont was the author of a sole text, died young and left no biographical trace.

Soupault modeled his frequent trips abroad along the lines of the Rimbaud-Lautreámont paradigm. "J'étais toujours, plus ou moins consciemment, influencé par la destineé de Rim-baud," recalled the poet, "lui qui avait décidé,à n'importe quel prix, de fuir les milieux littéraires. L' 'exemple' de Rimbaud, et le besoin de m'évader [...] m'obligèrent, le mot n'est pas trop fort, àpartir" (Mémoires 1923-1926). Soupault was not the only young Parisian avant-gardist who drew on the revered "example" to show his contempt for "literature." His Russian colleague and peer, Boris Poplavsky, who arrived in France in 1921 and promptly contracted the spirit of Dada, described his own ideal model of a poet, characteristically mixing the myths of Rimbaud and Lautreámont to express his "most profound disgust for literature." Wrote Poplavsky:

All I want is to express myself. To write one "naked" mystical book, like Lautreámont's Les Chants de Maldoror, then "assommer" several critics by leaving, becoming a soldier or a worker, doing away with the revolting dualism of real and described life. [I want] to concentrate on pain, to protect myself by contempt and silence.

Building surrealism's genealogical tree, Breton paid special homage to Jacques Vachéand Arthur Cravan. Both men had already enjoyed the reputation of "precursors" among dadaists who admired their anti-artistic and anti-social attitudes. According to Breton, Vaché's virtue was "to have produced nothing" ("Pour Dada"). Cravan, Oscar Wilde's nephew, had conveyed a similar disgust for literature in his review Maintenant, published on wrap paper from a Page 793  |  Top of Articlebutcher's store and distributed from a vegetable cart. Using suicide to express his anti-artistic attitude, Cravan announced that he would kill himself in public. After reading a presuicidal note, he disrobed and chased the audience with kicks and insults (Conover 23). This spectacle anticipated Dada's demonstrations in Paris. Future suicides René Crevel, Boris Poplavsky, Drieu La Rochelle, Jacques Rigaut, and Julien Torma participated in these shows haunted by Cravan's spirit.

In 1919, Jacques Vachéand his two friends were found dead, officially from an accidental opium overdose. But according to his myth, Vaché committed suicide, taking his unwitting friends along. In 1920, Arthur Cravan disappeared on a boat promenade, and it was never clear whether it was a suicide or an accident. The interpretation of their deaths constituted one of the founding myths of Dada and surrealism— suicide as the ultimate act of esthetic self-assertion and social and metaphysical transcendence. "Sa mort eut ceci d'admirable qu'elle pût passer pour accidentelle," wrote Breton about Vaché ("Confession"). While the ambiguity of their disappearance provided a model "death-style" for Breton's peers, Vaché's and Cravan's artistic and existential self-effacement linked them to Rimbaud and Lautreámont. Dadaists and surrealists projected the would-be suicides of Vachéand Cravan upon the myths of Rim-baud and Lautreámont which furnished different models of evasion, not associated with self-destruction. Thus, when Jacques Rigaut ended his days by finally committing his well advertised and long expected suicide, Victor Crastre wrote:

L'historien littéraire "tirera parti" de cette mort qui nous rappelle celle d'un autre initiateur de Dada: Jacques Vaché[ . . . ] Rimbaud et Lautreámont, [ . . . ] n'ont pas tenté cette forme d'évasion. Rimbaud au moment où il "renonce", ne se tue pas: il part [ . . . ]. Pour moi le désespoir de Rimbaud ne se trouve en rien diminuédu fait que celui-ci ne s'est pas tué.

("Jacques Rigaut")

The dadaist-surrealist split of 1922-23 had at its core the tension between the ethically valuable posture of "complete silence" and the more artistically fulfilling "literary temptation." Surrealism proposed a mild version of dadaist self-effacement. It permitted creative activity that produced "psychological documents," implicitly abolishing all distinction between the literary and non-literary. Life-in-poetry meant living otherwise than in everyday mediocrity. For Breton,

La poésie écrite perd de jour en jour sa raison d'être. Si des œuvres comme celles de Ducasse, de Rimbaud [ . . . ] jouissent de ce prestige sur les jeunes, pour commencer c'est que ces auteurs n'ont pas fait profession d'écrire [ . . . ] C'est que leur attitude en tant qu'hommes laisse loin leurs meŕites d'écrivains.


Dadaists, and later surrealists, elaborated a myth of suicide that served as an interpretive paradigm informing acts of self-destruction with special meaning. In light of this paradigm, suicide became an artistic text that could be "read" just like a written text, provided one was versed in the avant-garde cultural mythology. The active construction of this myth is evident throughout the 1920s in the theoretical and artistic writings of dadaists and surrealists. By the end of the decade, the suicide myth acquired a practical application as a meaning-generating mechanism, triggered by a series of suicides among avant-garde artists.


As a "fashionable" theoretical problem, suicide was omnipresent in surrealist thought (Blanche 5). The first issue of La Révolution surréaliste endowed dream and suicide with the same transcendental function. The review interrogated its readers in the questionnaire devoted to the problem of suicide:

On vit, on meurt. Quelle est la part de la volonté en tout cela? Il semble qu'on se tue comme on rêve. Ce n'est pas une question morale que nous posons: le suicide est-il une solution?


Characteristically, responses to this questionnaire were accompanied by the drawing "Jacques Vachépar lui-même."

Among the first respondents was the poet and writer Jacques Rigaut. Seeing suicide as a more efficient means of transcendence than automatic writing or hypnotic dreams ("Jacques Rigaut"), he developed both aspects of Vaché's death style. He wanted his future suicide to resemble both an accident and a "black joke" in which the suicide would die with company. Summing up his verdict on positivist reality, Rigaut wrote:

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Nous savons trop de quoi ces choses sont faites pour y prendre garde; justes bonnes àpropager quelques négligeables suicides-accidents [ . . . ] Un regret subsiste: on ne voudrait pas partir avant de s'être compromis; on voudrait, en sortant, entraîner avec soi Notre-Dame, l'amour ou la République.

("Jacques Rigaut")

A comparison of Rigaut's suicidal program with the program of surrealism reveals affinities bothwith regardtoRigaut'sviewofeveryday reality and of the means to transcend it. Extolling suicide as an artistically and existentially liberating act, Rigaut wrote:

Le désespoir, l'indifférence, les trahisons, la fidélité, la solitude, la famille, la liberté, la pesanteur, l'argent, la pauvreté, l'amour, l'absence d'amour, la syphilis, la santé, le sommeil, l'insomnie, le désir, l'impuissance, la platitude, l'art [ . . . ] il n'y a pas làde quoi fouetter un chat [ . . . ] Le suicide doit être une vocation.

("Jacques Rigaut")

By virtue of its enumerative form and its logic, this declaration of universal contempt for reality hearkens to Breton's Manifeste du surréalisme and provides an alternative to the means of evasion proposed by the "pope of surrealism." "Ce monde moderne," wrote Breton in his programmatic text,

enfin, diable! que voulez-vous que j'y fasse? [ . . . ] Les sans-fils? Bien. La syphilis? Si vous voulez. La photographie? Je n'y vois pas d'inconvénient. Le cinéma? Bravo pour les salles obscures. La guerre? Nous riions bien. Le téléphone? Allô, oui. La jeunesse? Charmants cheveux blancs. Essayez de me faire dire merci [ . . . ] C'est vivre et cesser de vivre qui sont des solutions imaginaires. L'existence est ailleurs.

"To stop living" is a metaphor; Breton speaks about eluding positivist reality for another, "super-real" existence that can be found in the unconscious. But the "deadly" ambiguity of the dadaist-surrealist escape is certainly there. The "imaginary solutions" proposed in the Manifeste included automatic writing and hypnotic dreams. However, the expression itself could not but recall the "solution" discussed in La Révolution surréaliste. Breton himself viewed suicide as a "legitimate solution" ("Confession"). Since, following his own argument, one's attitude in life was more important than one's attitude in art, Littérature's question "Why are you writing?" found its logical continuation in La Révolution surréaliste whose questionnaire about suicide could be paraphrased: "Why are you living?"

Many responses to this questionnaire confirmed the theoretical equivalency of automatic writing, dream, and suicide in surrealist thought. According to René Crevel, who killed himself in 1935, the "sensation of truth" forced courageous souls to overcome the mediocrity of daily life and to accept "the most just and definitive solution—suicide" ("Enquête"). Crevel undoubtedly meant the same "sensation" which forced one to flee reality in quest of "superreality" in dreams and hypnotic states. Antonin Artaud (who made several suicide attempts) expressed a similar opinion in his response to the questionnaire. For him, suicide was a means of transcending everyday life. And as such, the act of self-destruction became a metaphorical figure akin to other figures of evasion. Wrote Artaud:

Le suicide n'est que la conquête fabuleuse et lointaine des hommes qui pensent bien [ . . . ] Je suis mort depuis longtemps, je suis déjàsuicidé. On m'a suicidé, c'est-à-dire. Mais que penseriez-vous d'un suicide antérieur, d'un suicide qui nous ferait rebrousser chemin, mais de l'autre côté de l'existence, et non pas du côté de la mort. Celui-làseul aurait pour moi une valeur. Je ne sens pas l'appétit de la mort, je sens l'appétit du ne pas être.


Similarly to Artaud, most surrealists treated suicide with the same degree of ambiguity as other figures of existential evasion. Aragon'sjustification of hypnotic dreams, for instance, used the same logic as Rigaut's justification of suicide. In Une Vague de rêves (1924), Aragon refuted the suspicion that his associates simulated the hypnotic dreams which, as they claimed, allowed them to produce "records" of their unconscious: "Simuler une chose, est-ce autre chose que la penser? Et ce qui est pensé, est" (19). Echoing this logic, Jacques Rigaut wrote about his first aborted suicide attempt: "Ce qui importait, c'était d'avoir pris la dećision de mourir, et non que je mourusse" ("Jacques Rigaut" 57). Aragon himself turned to this logic when expressing his theoretical approbation of suicide:

Je regarde passer le cortège des suicides [ . . . ] Combien je m'étonne de voir se poursuivre la vie, que les suicidés sont les seuls morts par moi, mais véritablement respectés [ . . . ] Je ne me suis pas tué, non faute d'y avoir pensé[...] Pensons sans passion au suicide. Il est vrai qu'il semble un peu mieux qu'aucune de ces solutions.

("Traité du style")

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Aragon indeed attempted suicide in the late 1920s but the drug dose turned out to be too weak. As a trained physician he must have known this. Consequently, one wonders if the poet's ultimate goal was not the fashionable renown of a suicidal dandy, like that of Rigaut.

The first issue of another avant-garde review, Le Disque vert, was almost entirely devoted to suicide. Here Crevel elaborated his theory of "provisional suicides" ("Mort" 29-31) evocative of Rigaut's suicidal "vocation" and Artaud's "suicide in progress." In Crevel's "provisional suicide," the cult of self-destruction as the ultimate act of artistic and existential transcendence was as important as the actual realization of one's decision to die. In the same issue of Le Disque vert, Marcel Arland hailed suicide as part and logical consequence of the post-war "malady" which made young writers contemplate death without any "existential protection" ("Signe").

Rigaut's suicidal "vocation" reveals close association between suicide and the concept of a "gratuitous act" in dadaist and surrealist discourses. Insisting, like Artaud and Crevel, that one's decision to die was more important than its realization, Rigaut supported his argument by a general contempt of life that "was not worth the trouble of leaving it" (55), just as literature was not worth the trouble of writing it. The ambiguous circumstances of Cravan's and Vaché's deaths recalled the "gratuitous act" as exemplified by the character of Lafcadio from André Gide's novel Les Caves du Vatican (1916). Lafcadio kills a man "for no reason," committing a purely gratuitous crime. According to Jean Cocteau, Cravan had served as Lafcadio's prototype (Conover 252). Vachéhad paid tribute to Gide's Lafcadio for his proto-dadaist spirit (Crastre, "Trois héros" 6-7). For this reason, while debunking Gide's œuvre in general, Breton and Soupault made an exception for Les Caves du Vatican (Soupault, Mémoires 1914-1923).

The experience of automatic writing made Soupault aware of the limitations imposed upon creative spontaneity by written expression. As a result, he and Breton tried to "convert poetry into action," substituting "lived poetry" for "written poetry." Later Soupault described their experiments in "lived poetry":

Puisque j'avais admis qu'on pouvait ećrire "tout ce qui ce passe par la tête", je voulais savoir comment les autres, les passants, les "gens" allaient s'exprimer [ . . . ] Je demandais àacheter des oranges chez une concierge et un saucisson chez un fleuriste [ . . . ] C'étaient des "actes gratuits" mais qui provoquaient de vives et intéressantes réactions [ . . . ] C'étaient des poèmes vécus.

(Mémoires 1914-1923)

Two conditions were paramount to these life-in-poetry experiments. Firstly, the author viewed the active participation of his audience as an essential part of his "text." A "lived poem" could not exist without an exchange between the "poet" and the "reader." Secondly, at least one party had to act spontaneously. This orientation toward spontaneity, analogous to that in automatic writing, seemed to protect one's "text" from all suspicion of esthetic calculation and, ultimately, from the artistic vanity characteristic of "bourgeois" literature.

Breton's texts of 1919-1924 testify that he placed Jacques Vaché's life and death under the sign of a "gratuitous act." In light of Vaché's personal mythology—which included the rumor that, as a "last joke," killing himself, he took along two unwitting friends—Vaché's suicide could be linked to the notion of gratuitous crime. In their first "automatic" text, Les Champs magnétiques (1920), dedicatedtoVaché's memory, Breton and Soupault spoke about a mysterious young man who, having acquired a revolver, wanted to try it out on his neighbors. The story ended with an observation that could signify either the young man's suicide or the realization of his project: "Quelle surprise, dites-moi, quand nous trouvâmes son portrait dans les journaux!." In another text, Breton described Vaché as a young man who "kicked away art" and "disappeared rather mysteriously" ("Pour Dada"). The two young men merged in "La Confession dédaigneuse," where Breton recounted how Vaché, entering a concert hall in the Conservatoire Maubel with a revolver, wanted to shoot at the public because the show was too "artistic" for his taste.

Vachécontributed to the suicide myth of the French avant-garde the requirement of gratuity, which served as an alibi in an act of self-destruction. Gratuity protected the artist from the charge of esthetic ambition. In Jacques Rigaut's program, suicide was a good means of self-effacement, provided it was completely gratuitous ("Jacques Rigaut"). This meant that one could not die "for a reason." An act of self-destruction must be or must appear as spontaneous and unmotivated as Soupault's attempt to buy oranges from a Page 796  |  Top of Articleconcierge. Thus, according to his myth, Rigaut at all times disposed of a means of self-destruction in case of a spontaneous desire to kill himself. Following the same logic of gratuitous action, Breton found quite natural Vladimir Maiakovsky's suicide, which shocked most contemporaries as unexpected. In Breton's view, Maiakovsky killed himself because he was an avant-garde artist: as such, he had lived in the state of theoretical suicide, whereby the decision to die was more important than its realization. Wrote Breton:

Le courage n'est pas, d'ailleurs, de continuer à vivre ou de mourir: il n'est que d'envisager de sang-froid la violence respective des deux cou-rants contradictoires qui entraînent. Un homme qui pense, c'est-à-dire un honnête homme, est appelé à en juger en dernier ressort à chaque seconde et, au figuréou non, il me paraîtsain que sa main ne lâche pas le revolver.

("Liubovnaia lodka")


As early as 1923, Jacques Rigaut's suicidal"vocation" became a "literary fact." The hero of Jean Cocteau's novel Le Grand Ecart follows the recipe for "accidental suicide": he tries to die by simulating a drug overdose (84-85) and contemplates the gratuitous nature of his act. In the same year, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle made fun of Rigaut in his story "La Valise vide." The story's protagonist Gonzague uses suicide to cover up his artistic inadequacy. But Rigaut's death forced Drieu (who killed himself in 1945)to reconsider the avant-garde death-style. In 1931, Drieu published the novel Le Feu follet and wanted to accompany it with a short text entitled "Adieu à Gonzague." The novel deals with the life of a writer who prefers the "sincerity" of suicide to the "lie" of literature. "Adieu à Gonzague" was Drieu's apology for "La Valise vide"; it confirmed the righteousness of Rigaut's act. "Je suis bien heureux que tu te sois tué," wrote Drieu,

Littérature, rêve d'enfance quite revenait toujours et qui était devenu un fruit sec et dérisoire que tu cachais [ . . . ] (177) Tu ne trichais pas comme la plupart de nos contemporains [ . . . ] (180-81) Mourir, c'est ce que tu pouvais faire de plus beau.

Drieu was not alone in his attitude vis-à-vis Rigaut's death. Paul Éluard eulogized the correspondence between Rigaut's attitudes in art and life, hailing his suicide as an act of righteousness: "L'arme braqueé par le suicide contre la vie en a toujours raison [...] Jacques Rigaut a veću avec le souci de cette ressemblance parfaite" ("Lord Patchogue" 16). But even more importantly, one of the most influential literary critics of the time, Édmond Jaloux, attested to the widespread perception of this suicide as a model manifestation of the post-war "malady" and a proof of Rigaut's artistic "sincerity." Commenting on Rigaut's posthumously published manuscripts, Jaloux wrote:

Quand on fera l'histoire de cette époque, je signale aux critiques futurs qu'il leur faudra en tenir compte même si beaucoup leur paraissent négligeables. L'histoire de Jacques Rigaut est celle de bien des jeunes hommes de son temps; son abdication fut le signe de sa pureté.

("Papiers posthumes")

The dadaist-surrealist suicide myth has left its most comprehensive record in Philippe Soupault's novel En Joue! (1925). This novel confirms the place and function of suicide in the esthetics and philosophy of the French avant-garde. The fact that Soupault treated the question of suicide in the milieu of avant-garde artists ironically, as Drieu had done two years before him, indicates that by 1923 this topic had become a commonplace in dadaist and surrealist discourses and had acquired a set of rhetorical and situational clichés that could be ridiculed. Soupault described in his memoirs the conception of his novel and its protagonist, the young avant-garde writer Julien:

J'écrivais un roman qui était àla fois comique et désespérant dont le titre m'avait été suggéré par mon ami Jacques Rigaut: En Joue! Certains aspects du personnage, sa désinvolture notamment, m'avaient été imposeś par la façon de vivre de cet ami. Fort injustement d'ailleurs. J'ignorais alors qu'il mettrait quelques années plus tard ses menaces àexećution et qu'il prononcerait le mot: Feu! en se tirant un coup de revolver dans la bouche.

(Mémoires 1923-1926)

According to his creator, Julien is a "hero of his time" and a "face of his époque" (En Joue! 204). Although there is no explicit statement of this hero's association with Breton's group, the novel repeatedly alludes to the impact of the surrealist movement on the young writer. Arriving at the Cafédu Globe (the gathering place of Breton's associates), he asks the waiter for writing implements—"de quoi écrire." This is an Page 797  |  Top of Articleallusion to the Manifeste du surréalisme in which Breton instructs those practicing "automatic writing" to find a table in a caféand to ask for writing implements ("Faites-vous apporter de quoi écrire" 41). Julien likes to be questioned as to why he writes literature ("pourquoi il écrit")— a reference to the famous question in Littérature: "Pourquoi écrivez-vous?" But he does not give a direct response, preferring to answer in images ("par une image" 16). Since the poetic image was a pillar of surrealist esthetics, while the term "image" was omnipresent in the group's theoretical discourse, Julien's answer conformed to sur-realist artistic doctrine.

Thinking about his own artistic merits, Julien observes: "Je suis d'une incroyable légèreté[...] Je suis la légèretémême." Symptomatically, in the works of Breton's associates, the terms "légèreté" and "facilité" most often refer to the quality of verbal expression acquired by means of "automatic writing" that, supposedly, liberates the artist from the fetters of reason and social conventions. Soupault himself had already mentioned this ideal quality in his novel Voyage d'Horace Pirouelle (1924), whose epigraph, taken from Paul Éluard's poem, reads: "J'ai la beauté facile est c'est heureux" (23; emphasis added). Finally, like many surrealists, Julien is in search of the "objective chance" ("le hasard objectif") that would suddenly reveal to him the existence of "superreality" through an uncanny manifestation. He seeks "objective chance" on his long Parisian walks reminiscent of the promenades of Breton's and Aragon's protagonists in Nadja and Le Paysan de Paris.

Like those surrealists who went through the school of Dada, Julien reconciles "literary temptation" with the dadaist contempt for "literature" and "literati." According to him, literature is a "futile" and "completely idiotic" occupation. He writes poetry "without any ambition"—merely "not to lose the habit." But unlike most surreal-ists, he finally stops writing. This literal implementation of the dadaist ideal of artistic self-effacement is Julien's first step on the road to the ultimate existential evasion exemplified by Vachéand Cravan. Indeed, the writer considers suicide, projecting the "idiocy" and "futility" of literature upon life. He starts thinking about a "solution," which, in the context of this novel, evokes the suicidal solution discussed in La Révolution surréaliste. Soupault writes:

Le suicide. Oui. Il y songeait seŕieusement. C'était un alibi. "Qu'est-ce que vous ferez, Julien?" "Je me suiciderai". Réponse universelle qu'il donnait non seulement à ses amis inquiets, mais àlui-même. Sa vie se jouait sur sa mort.

These words recall Artaud's "suicide-in-progress" and Rigaut's suicidal "vocation." Furthermore, Julien requires from suicide the same quality he expects to find in a perfect crime— gratuity.

Once he thinks about suicide, Julien cannot help thinking about gratuitous crime: "Il faut mourir comme l'on a vécu." He has long placed his life under the sign of the gratuitous crime—a murder he believes he has committed following Lafcadio's example. But he is afraid that this murder was but an accident. This possibility terrifies Julien because his supposed crime is a perfect alibi for his contempt of art. In an effort to live poetry, rather than to write poetry, he does not want to be a "poet" but a "murderer":

"Le malheur est peut-être que je n'ai tuéréellement personne? Ni Lui, ni moi-même. Peutêtre a-t-il voulu se suicider?" Il déplore déjàde n'être plus àses yeux un assassin, mais uniquement le poète Julien [ . . . ] Il a besoin de son crime pour se donner une raison de vivre, une raison de mourir.

Ultimately, however, the reputation of a Lafcadio or a Vaché could promote Julien's written poetry. Julien is full of artistic vanity, even through he claims complete indifference toward literary expression. Having lost his alibi in a gratuitous crime, he sees suicide as his second chance not to be remembered as "the poet Julien" only. Paradoxically, his written poetry will be more appreciated by his peers if his personal mythology denies the significance of his own literary production. Therefore, Julien gradually becomes obsessed with the idea of suicide, espousing the necrophiliac esthetics peculiar to many surrealist authors. It suffices to compare the description of Julien's state of mind to Crevel's and Aragon's writings to see that the latter are both the source and object of mockery in Soupault's novel.

"Sans qu'il pûtreśister, une ideé s'empara de lui avec feŕocité: La Mort" (47), says Soupault, writing the word "Mort" with a capital letter. "Aucun effort ne s'opposera jamais victorieusement àcette poussée profonde, àcet élan mysteŕieux [...] l'Élan mortel," writes Crevel in La Révolution surréaliste ("Enquête"). "O Mort Page 798  |  Top of Article[...] ne me taquine pas: je viendrai," muses Aragon's narrator in "Le Passage de l'Opéra" (Paysan), where the word "Mort" is capitalized. Incidentally, in 1925 Soupault invited Aragon to publish "Le Passage de l'Opéra" in La Revue européenne, which he edited. Following this publication, Aragon publicly ridiculed Soupault as an aspiring "homme de lettres" who had failed to see that the piece was a "joke." In the same year Soupault was forced to leave Breton's group: he was accused of paying too much attention to "literature." Soupault's mockery of the necrophiliac side of surrealism and of the indifference to literature professed by its apostles may have come from his desire to respond to his "excommunication" from the group.

The intentional ambiguity of Julien's suicide follows the rules of the dadaist-surrealist death-style. It is not clear if, pulling the trigger of his revolver, Julien aims at himself or at an "egg vacillating on top of a fountain." This egg, which he at first sees as a jumping white spot, may be the trembling tip of a gun barrel that Julien sees when he opens his eyes and realizes that his revolver is much closer to his face than he expected. Although the novel's ending remains ambiguous, those of Soupault's readers privy to the avant-garde suicide myth hardly doubted Julien's violent demise.

This was the case of André Gide, who confronted the suicide myth in Les Faux-Monnayeurs (1925). We can only speculate whether Gide took on dadaist-surrealist suicidal esthetics as part of the general discussion of the "new children of the century" in his novel or because he felt responsible for contributing one of its major traits (gratuity) and models (Lafcadio). Describing the formation of a radical anti-esthetic movement among his teenage heroes, Gide depicted them as disgusted by literature and intent on seeing writing as an obstacle to living. The conflict between art and life, whereby living becomes a kind of artistic expression, is experienced by the pupils of the Azaïs pension and by the more mature Armand Vedel and Bernard Profitendieu. In a conversation with Olivier Molinier, the first editor of the review Avant-Garde, Bernard cites Rimbaud as his model of self-realization in life and muses about suicide as the act by which he could fully express himself. Combining the cult of suicide with eccentric behavior in everyday life, the teenagers of the Azaïs pension take as their motto, "L'Homme fort ne tient pas à la vie", making the cult of self-destruction their life credo. Albert Thibaudet saw suicide as a central value in the axiological system of Gide's characters (21-22).

Olivier attempts to kill himself after making love to his uncle Édouard, for as Bernard tells him, one can commit suicide "out of enthusiasm," in a spontaneous drive due to mere excess of life, whereby suicide is a creative act crowning an existential explosion. Boris de La Peŕouse also tries a suicidal recipe handed down by friends along with a revolver. But the "strong men" who set up his death as spontaneous and accidental do not follow his example. The fact that wrong people try to kill themselves—not the preachers of suicide but their victims—shows that suicide has negative value in Gide's novel. Olivier and Boris are pushed to self-destruction by spiritual counterfeiters. Incidentally, the pupils of the Azaïs pension distribute fake coins under the supervision of avant-garde artists. Even Rimbaud's renunciation is travestied by Vincent Molinier, who, having killed his lover, goes mad in a remote corner of Africa. Gide presents the dadaist-surrealist suicide myth, which became a literary fact by 1925, as false rhetoric. His protagonist Édouard is so anguished by Olivier's suicidal attempt and Boris' death, that he refuses to estheticize these events as novelistic material.


As with any "lived poem," Jacques Rigaut's suicide required the participation of an audience that would "read" his act of self-destruction as the gesture of an avant-garde artist. The dadaist-surrealist suicide myth could inform any such act, notwithstanding the actor's original motives and the circumstances of his death. But to use it as an interpretive paradigm, "readers" had to be versed in the myth, whose presence in contemporary literary texts testifies to the cultural institutionalization of the avant-garde deathstyle in inter-war French artistic circles.

Since Rigaut had long cultivated the reputation of a dandy awaiting the inspiration for an "accidental suicide," his death was found surprising in that it left no doubts as to its nature. "Je m'étonne que celui-ci ne soit pas mort exactement de la même manière que Vaché, c'est-à-dire de telle façaon qu'il soit interdit d'affirmer qu'il s'est suicidé," wrote Victor Crastre, "Sans doute a-t-il compris que ces sortes d'accidents ne trom-pent plus personne" ("Jacques Rigaut"). Indeed, Page 799  |  Top of Articlethe formation of a model avant-garde deathstyle contradicted the spontaneity and gratuity expected from a "lived poem." This may have made Rigaut alter his suicidal script: like Soupault's Julien and Gide's Boris, he shot himself.

The "cortège des suicides" (Aragon, Traité du style 88) went on after Rigaut's death. In 1933, Julien Torma disappeared during a mountain promenade (Conover 10). Like Rigaut, Torma took part in the dadaist movement and shared the self-effacing attitude that marked the myths of its "precursors." Torma's mysterious disappearance, construed as an "accidental suicide," was followed by René Crevel's and Boris Poplavsky's suicides in 1935. If Crevel's death left no doubts about its self-inflicted nature, Poplavsky arranged his demise as a group "accidental suicide" à la Jacques Vaché. Notwithstanding the differences in circumstances, the deaths of Rigaut, Torma, Crevel, and Poplavsky were interpreted similarly. Informed by the paradigm of the Vaché-Cravan suicidal model, these events were "read" as the artists' attempts to live up to the ideal of self-effacement in art and life and as ultimate proofs of artistic "sincerity."

All four men were linked to the ancestors of Dada and surrealism not only through their common fate but thanks to their lifestyles and anti-artistic attitudes. The split between the sur-realist stance admitting artistic creation and the dadaist ideal of complete silence was the reason for which Rigaut and Torma did not fully integrate themselves into Breton's group, which seemed too "literary": "Vous êtes tous des poètes et moi je suis du côtéde la mort," wrote Rigaut to surrealists (Écrits). Suicide provided a concrete mode of action for those who strove to implement literally the ideal of artistic and existential renunciation.

Rigaut continued writing until his death, but stopped publishing after 1923. He argued that he had no literary ambition and was more interested in boxing. Expressing contempt for traditional art, the combination of poetry and boxing drew on the myth of Arthur Cravan, an amateur boxer whose leaflet Maintenant (March-April 1915) contained the text "Arthur Cravan. Poète et Boxeur." Thus, the surrealist Jacques Baron, "a poet better known as a boxer," went by the nickname "Baron le boxeur" (Aragon, Paysan); Soupault's protagonists, Julien (En Joue!) and Jean X. (Le Bon Apôtre), claimed to be more interested in boxing than in literature. Torma also insisted that literature was of no interest to him and that the publication of his only book of poetry happened "by accident" (Conover 92, 133). After 1926 he "fell silent" and led a nomadic life. His trajectory is unknown except for one place, where he took pains to be noticed,—Char-leville, Arthur Rimbaud's birthplace. Although Crevel and Poplavsky rallied for surrealism and continued publishing, Crevel modeled his suicide in the novel La Mort difficile, blurring the lines between experiments in surrealist transcendence and physical self-destruction. Poplavsky, when he did not claim indifference to literature, presented himself as a "poet and boxer" (Livak 130). In his theoretical writings, the émigré poet argued that "art was unnecessary" and that full self-expression was possible only by way of "perishing, dying, disappearing" (Neizdannoe 96; "O misticheskoi atmosfere" 309, 311).

Philippe Soupault extended his apology to Rigaut and other avant-garde suicides much later than did Drieu La Rochelle in his "Adieu à Gonzague." In the 1979 preface to En Joue! Soupault wrote: "Ils ont vécu, tour à tour, les aventures dont j'avais peut-être tort de me moquer et de sourire, même d'en rire parfois." In this belated apology, the writer grouped together his friends René Crevel, Drieu La Rochelle, and Jacques Rigaut, even though the motives and circumstances of their suicides differed considerably. From Soupault's point of view, informed by the avant-garde suicide myth, they all succumbed to the post-war artistic and existential "malady" which he himself had contracted but survived:

Relisant bien des années après l'avoir écrit, ce "roman", j'ai reconnu les fantômes de mes amis [ . . . ] Et tous ces amis sont mort, et je les reconnais, je les nomme: Jacques, Pierre, René, tous qui sont Julien, le "héros" de ce livre prémonitoire puisque tous les Juliens que je mettais en joue ont fait feu [ . . . ] Le seul survivant des personnages que j'ai baptiseś Julien est celui qui a ećrit ce témoignage.

The series of suicides among the Paris-based artists associated with the interbellum French avant-garde—Arthur Cravan, RenéCrevel, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Boris Poplavsky, Jacques Rigaut, Julien Torma, Jacque Vaché,—constitutes a body of "texts" that runs parallel to and supplements the corpus of dadaist and surrealist writings. One wonders if a Breton or an Aragon looked back at the time when they "lived poetry" and considered the path of their dead peers truer to Page 800  |  Top of Articlethe ideal they had professed themselves. We know that Soupault started having such thoughts very early in his career. That is why he describes his transition from Dada to surrealism as a compromise. While Jean X., the protagonist of Soupault's Le Bon Apôtre (1923), stops writing literature and "leaves," his double, "Philippe Soupault," says: "J'aimais mieux m'appeler Philippe Dada que Philippe Soupault [ . . . ] Tout est fini maintenant. J'écris des romans, je publie des livres."

This statement reflects the central contradiction of avant-garde esthetics, a contradiction that forms the backbone of the dadaist-surrealist suicide myth. The advertised anti-artistic attitude of the avant-gardist is irreconcilable with artistic self-expression. Choosing art, one is bound to lose, sooner or later, his claim to avant-gardism; rejecting art, he will eventually stop being an artist. The dadaist-surrealist suicide myth, as it developed in interbellum France, offered to a number of artists a key to this problem. It provided them with a life-in-poetry script that combined both existential and esthetic self-affirmation, while allowing to renounce "bourgeois" art and society. As avant-garde artists turned their own lives into artistic texts and their own bodies into artistic material, the illusion of artistic "sincerity" seemed closer then ever. Following the logic of "lived poetry," survivors bestowed this much-coveted illusion upon the dead.

Source: Leonid Livak, "The Place of Suicide in the French Avant-Garde of the Inter-War Period," in Romanic Review, Vol. 91, No. 3, May 2000, pp. 245-62.


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Caws, Mary Ann, ed., Surrealist Painters and Poets, MIT Press, 2001.

This book offers a large selection of reprinted texts from surrealist painters and poets, including some rare letters and essays that are hard to find elsewhere.

Levitt, Annette Shandler, The Genres and Genders of Surrealism, St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Levitt places Surrealism at the center of modernism and explores the philosophical stance of Page 801  |  Top of ArticleSurrealism, the creative rebellion that was more than a new way of looking at things.

Perloff, Marjorie, The Futurist Movement: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture, University of Chicago Press, 2003.

In this updated edition with a new preface, Perloff studies the futurist movement in Europe, explaining how it arose and then influenced European culture from the late nineteenth century into the new millennium. Perloff's book is the only one as of 2008 that deals seriously with the poetry, art, and prose of futurist creators.

Rose, Alan, Surrealism and Communism: The Early Years, Peter Lang, 1991.

At one point, Surrealism was linked with communism. Rose explores this link between the two ideologies and how it was established and broken.

Walz, Robin, Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century France, University of California Press, 2000.

Walz focuses on the little-known influences of French Surrealism, which include fantastic popular fiction, and sensationalistic journalism— part of the darker, more rebellious, side of mass culture.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3279300038