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  • Analyzing Surrealist Madness Through the Poetry of Salvador Dalí
  • Jacqueline Rattray (bio)

In an issue of La Révolution surréaliste (1928) which celebrates the ‘Fiftieth anniversary of hysteria’, André Breton and Louis Aragon offer an alternative to contemporary psychology’s diagnosis of hysteria. They declare that:

Hysteria is a more or less irreducible mental condition, marked by the subversion, quite apart from any delirium-system, of the relations established between the subject and the moral world under whose authority he believes himself practically to be. [. . . ] Hysteria is by no means a pathological symptom and can in every way be considered a supreme form of expression.1

In spite of their voice of pseudo-medical authority, Breton and Aragon make only the broadest of definitions here in describing hysteria as involving a crisis in subject-object relations. Before discussing the case of Dalí’s poetry, the concept of surrealist madness in general will be analysed in light of the term ‘delirium-system’ and the importance of the Surrealists’ search for a ‘supreme form of expression’.

In actual cases of mental illness, the subject is ruled by an alternative conception of reality which is outside the realms of what is conventionally considered to be rational or controllable. Surrealist madness, on the other hand, will often be seen to exhibit a particularly systematic disordering of the boundaries between reason and unreason within the creative process.2 Surrealism’s interest in madness and extreme mental states does not imply a desire to live permanently under the rules of irrationality. The aim is rather to experience the freedom of exploring different mental states, opening the mind to the possible expansion of new horizons with a view to reassessing the so-called objective view of the world.3 Surrealist madness brings together the influence of psychoanalysis and the revolutionary concerns of Marxism, giving voice to the marginalized in society and releasing consciousness from the confines of bourgeois institutionalized norms.4 In the unsigned ‘Letter to the medical directors [End Page 207] of insane asylums’ –a document which appeared in another edition of La Révolution surréaliste – the author(s) declare that: ‘All individual acts are antisocial. The insane are the supreme individual victims of the social dictatorship.’5

Surrealism itself is not concerned with diagnosing madness: such an action would immediately assimilate and attempt to rationalize that which is, by very definition, beyond reason.6 In a later tract, entitled ‘Surrealism and the Treatment of Mental Illness’ (1930), Breton asserts that the revolutionary interest of Surrealism lies in uncovering symptoms of madness within our everyday world of ‘normality’, occurrences which disturb our understanding of ‘sanity’.7 Surrealism celebrates conditions which deviate from the norm and takes an obsessive interest in altered states of consciousness which are familiar to us all as symptomatic of a ‘mad’ reasoning – dreams, déjà vu, objective chance, hypnotic trances, poetic intoxication, magic, alchemy, mediumistic practices, etc.8 All of these experiences provoke the strange sensation of a lack of reasoning over perceived reality and allow the subject (momentarily) to cross the boundary between the conscious and the subconscious. Surrealist madness manifests itself through a number of metaphorical ‘symptoms’. Images of fragmentation and juxtaposition invite an interpretation of revolutionary chaos. Hallucinogenic images confuse the mind which has become accustomed to a singular, fixed and concrete understanding of the world: forms appear which are impossible images in real terms and which can metamorphose into further images, throwing the reader’s perception into a delirium of interpretation.

Surrealism offers the gateway to other mental states that can permit a radically different perspective on our view of reality. Furthermore, this state of altered reality is one over which the participant has control to come and go at will. The key to entering this alternative reality is provided through poetic exploration. In one of their texts from The Immaculate Conception (1930), Breton and Eluard assert this empowering condition of Surrealism, stressing their aim to show that

given a state of poetic tension, the normal mind is capable of furnishing verbal material of the most profoundly paradoxical and eccentric nature, and it is possible for such a mind to harbour the main ideas of delirium...


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pp. 207-220
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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