Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Surrealism Was a Mistake

The fantastic has too long been wedded to incoherent, meaningless images.

Ninety years ago André Breton asked: “Can’t the dream be used in solving the fundamental problems of life?”

The answer, of course, is no. The unconscious does not offer some insight into the mystery of the human will, the relationship between subjective and objective reality, or the possibility of world peace.

But does it make for good art? On that score, the results are decidedly mixed.

Let me start by admitting that it is odd and usually unhelpful to think of artistic practices as either successes or mistakes. Practices are developed, rise or fall in popularity, are used to good effect by good artists and to poor effect by bad ones. But I would like to make the distinction here between the use of the fantastic in late 19th and early 20th century art and literature, which more or less developed organically, and Breton’s attempt to codify and regulate particular practices under the term surrealism.

The fantastic is not the same as surrealism. It is the use of images, often borrowed or indebted in some way to Greek and pagan mythology or Christianity, in the context of a larger work in such a way that surprises or that is particularly evocative. Examples include the work of François de Nomé, Gustave Doré, William Blake, and others. Breton’s surrealism, on the other hand, is both idealistic and ideological. It prescribes certain artistic practices—automatism—for certain aesthetic and social ends.

The word “surrealism” was first used in 1917 by Guillaume Apollinaire in reference to Cocteau’s Parade. Apollinaire was rather liberal in his use and definition of the term, as Ruth Brandon notes in Surreal Lives. (“When man wanted to imitate walking,” Apollinaire once wrote, “he invented the wheel, which does not look like a leg. Without knowing it, he was a Surrealist.”) Breton was not.

Breton argued that the use of automatism might provide a more all-encompassing, “synthetic” expression of the world—one in which all differences, including those between social classes, were obliterated. In his first Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton states that “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.” And in his Second Manifesto of Surrealism, he writes:

Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions. Now, search as one may one will never find any other motivating force in the activities of the Surrealists than the hope of finding and fixing this point.

American attitudes and uses of surrealism have been more pragmatic. Painters such as Gerome Kamrowski and William Baziotes rejected surrealism’s radical politics but played with images associated with dreams in their work. And in a talk at “The First Papers in Surrealism” in 1942, Robert Motherwell argued that while automatism was, technically speaking, impossible, a version of it—what he called “plastic automatism”—could be a useful tool in picture-making.

In the end, though, plastic automatism has little in common with Breton’s surrealism. It is simply the painter’s free use of paint and other materials in a work as these items come to mind or to hand. Painting takes time to execute, and because of this, it is impossible to reduce the time between brush stroke and some thought supposedly at the edge of consciousness to maintain the fantasy that the unconscious is in any way being explored.

Poetry has not been so lucky. Paul Éluard, Blaise Cendrars, and others attempted to put Breton’s ideas (which were, after all, principally addressed to writers) into practice and the results were incredibly boring poems, even despite the occasional violent or sexual image. Benjamin Péret’s metaphors are striking enough (see “Hello”), but all in all, it’s been a miserable failure.

Despite this, soft surrealism—that is, a little incoherence there, an out of place violent or sexual image there (no one tries to actually use automatism)—is still relatively popular today. It makes a poem look edgy, in-the-know, and it has a nice leftist pedigree. The problem is that this soft surrealism can hide incompetence and often adds nothing to a poem, other than the above stylish marking. (Examples—almost all published this month—can be found here, here, here, here, and here.)

Stephen Burt has written against this soft surrealism, which he calls “elliptical poetry,” and has suggested that a renewed focus on objects in poetry—on “well-made, attentive, unornamented things”—might (and should) replace the “slippery, digressive, polyvocalic,…overlapping, colorful fragments” of a still fashionable soft surrealism.

I would propose a different route. Getting rid of incoherence, meaningless images, fragmented syntax, and so forth, could open a much needed opportunity for a fantastic in poetry that makes sense. Too long has the fantastic been wedded to Breton’s watered-down automatism, and breaking definitively free from it might open the field for more poems like Marly Youmans’s Thaliad or Joe Fletcher’s Sleigh Ride. And that would be a very good thing.