- Free Rein (La Clé des Champs)
Free Rein is the title that translators have chosen to give to André Breton’s book originally titled La Clé des Champs (The Key to the Fields) when it first appeared in 1953. Now, as then, the book reveals Breton as an assiduous reader of texts he loves for the way they perform as keys to his ongoing definition of Surrealism. The “fields” to which these verbal and visual artworks hold the key are, of course, a reference to the champs magnétiques, or magnetic fields, cited in the title of the first book of Surrealist automatic writing, which was produced by Breton and Philippe Soupault in the summer of 1919. Those texts were meant to operate like two-way mirrors onto the poet’s inner psyche, sparking moments of revelation. La Clé des Champs collects commentaries, introductions, declarations, and reviews written between the late 1930s and early 1950s, all of which show that Breton has not given up seeking all manner of keys to art that is capable of giving free rein to the imagination. He even invites Gaston Gallimard, in “The Night of the Rose Hotel,” to inaugurate a new book series to be entitled Revelation, which would “bring to light a number of truly exceptional works that are not always easy to understand but that have the power to make us see beyond the horizon of the life we think we lead” (197–98).
In Free Rein Breton elaborates upon themes already presented in the first “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924), Nadja (1928), Surrealism and Painting (1928), and L’Amour fou (Mad Love) (1937), namely the ascendancy of an inner vision over an exterior outlook, the greater effectiveness of analogical thinking, and the power of certain objects to release the insights characteristic of a visionary (as opposed to merely visual) perspective. In reference to the art of Oceania, for instance, Breton writes: “On the other side [the side of the visionary], we find the expression of the greatest effort to account for the interpenetration of mind and matter, to overcome the dualism of perception and representation, not to stop at the bark but to return to the sap” (172). This statement echoes what he wrote about perception in his 1928 study Surrealism and Painting, about chance in Nadja, and about the catalytic role of the found object in L’Amour fou. 1 It reiterates the 1942 statement of intent he prepared in New York for the journal VVV: “to the V that stands for viewing what is all around us, eyes turned outward, the conscious surface of things, Surrealism has relentlessly opposed W, the view within, eyes turned inward toward the inner world and the depths of the unconscious” (68).
A greater political self-consciousness shines through these essays of Breton’s maturity. He comments on the natural attraction the young Surrealists felt for anarchism (in the essay, “Tower of Light”) and bemoans the defection of certain of his former colleagues—namely Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon—to the Communist party (“Open Letter to Paul Eluard” and “Of ‘Socialist Realism’ as a Means of Mental Extermination”). He also insists upon the importance for art of the freedom of the artist. This point is discussed in relation to Stalinism in [End Page 213] “Why is Contemporary Russian Painting Kept Hidden from Us?” and “Of ‘Socialist Realism’ as a Means of Mental Extermination,” and in a more general sense, in relation to Surrealism, in the 1947 essays “Surrealist Comet” and “Second Ark,” where he proclaims: “ART MUST NEVER TAKE ORDERS, WHATEVER HAPPENS!” (99).
Free Rein, therefore, contributes to our understanding of Breton historically as a man who never wavered in his principles while at the same time maintaining the open-mindedness evident in the writing strategies of Nadja and Arcane 17 (1944), texts structured according to the “swinging door” he claims as the ideal for books in Nadja, where he writes that he is exclusively interested in “books left swinging open, like doors...