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Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 148-153

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The Edges of Surrealism

Pennsylvania State University
Katharine Conley, Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday Life (University of Nebraska Press, 2003)
Claudine Frank, ed., The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader (Duke University Press, 2003)
Eric Zafran and Paul Paret, Surrealism and Modernism: From the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (Yale University Press, 2003)

2004 marks the centenary of Salvador Dalí's birth. In response, many scholars and collectors are hard at work celebrating the career of this artist who—at least in the U.S. and in the U.K.— continues to orient how we understand surrealism. Overshadowing even André Breton's stature as the movement's literary reference-point, Dalí's looming presence in the Anglo-American popular imaginary has yielded regrettable consequences. Not only has it made a cartoon of Dalí's own work, but it has also helped reduce surrealism itself to little more than an exercise in stylistics. Even now, in an era longing to resist the mounting pressures of orthodoxy and fundamentalism, we continue to brand surrealism as an orthodoxy of its own, albeit an orthodoxy of the bizarre. In the eyes of its Anglo-American critics, surrealism still tends to designate a quaint set of formal practices that produced the movement's unusual, if obfuscatory, visual and verbal works, as well as its broader "utopian" program of dream and Revolution. This reductive tendency is not so much the fault of either Dalí or Breton, so much as it is the result of their isolation as the movement's essential figures. Indeed, the surrealist writer René Crevel once praised Dalí explicitly for his radical opposition to formalism, and for his politically useful anti-obscurantism. Breton, likewise, continually stressed the surrealist movement's commitment to resisting orthodoxy, the very notion of "surrealism" itself evoking a perpetual "crisis in consciousness" whose methods changed as the movement's participants changed. It is this latter insistence upon change—even upon crisis and internal debate—that has challenged scholars and critics with the task of defining such an unstable tangle of writers and artists, practices and ideas. Herein, it seems, lies the tendency to isolate Dalí and Breton as exemplary [End Page 148] figures, while, at the same time, digesting the complexities of "surrealism" as a transhistorical bolus of poetic and political styles.

It is for this reason that the three recent books reviewed below, each devoted to so-called marginal figures in the surrealist firmament, are so welcome and necessary to any reevaluation of surrealism's contribution to modern thought. The three books, however different in scope and scale—a critical biography, a scholarly collection of essays in translation, and an exhibition catalogue—prove that the study of surrealism has begun to move beyond the endless axiomatic work of summarizing and introducing the movement. These studies explore the specific points of contact between individual thinkers and collective intellectual movements in ways that will greatly benefit our understanding of surrealism and modernism alike.

Part intellectual biography, part poetic analysis, Katharine Conley's splendid Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday Life (Nebraska, 2003), devotes much of its attention to the poet's career beyond the "official" cradle of the surrealist movement. Desnos is usually best known in two distinct historical contexts: first, as a major figure in surrealism's birth, when, as a young poet freshly demobilized from a postwar stint in Morocco, he took part in a series of séances immortalized in photographs by Man Ray. He remained central to the movement's experiments with language, film, and popular imagery until the late 1920s, finally abandoning André Breton's circle in 1929 as the movement increasingly vaunted its political commitment to Marxism. Second, Desnos is remembered as a popular poet of the Resistance and as a tragic historical footnote, dying of typhoid in Terezin shortly after his liberation from the Nazi concentration camp at Flöha. Conley's book explores the period between these two events; in doing so, it scrupulously avoids...


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