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Reminiscences and Reflections on André Breton Anna Balakian IN 1940 WHEN I FIRST HEARD of André Breton, the creator of Surrealism, I was a student at Columbia University. In a course on the Enlightenment, the eminent scholar, Paul Hazard, was discussing the possibility of the separation of spirituality from religious belief. In this context this specialist in 18th-century French literature referred to the surrealists and observed that Breton and his cohorts were on to something beyond poetry and painting. And when he returned a paper of mine on Baudelaire he bid me to look into Surrealism. I began to read the Manifestos, got a dissertation approved on the origins of surrealism, and when Breton arrived in New York the following year I wanted to see him. My wish was fulfilled through the intermediary role of the art collector, Julien Levy, who arranged for me to have an interview with him. Twenty-five years later I described that first meeting with him in my biography of André Breton.l Breton was living in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment on West 11th Street with his wife Jacqueline and their little daughter, Aube. The name Breton was framed in an American letter box and, under the skylight of an artist's mansard roof, there emerged before me a powerful man trapped in a cage, muzzled by a language he could not speak, circumvented by a society he could not understand, reduced to a fearful reality that seemed forever to obliterate the possibility of the dream whose powers over our lives he had extolled previously in his homeland. In New York this most handsome and photogenic poet since Chateaubriand reminded me of the poem of Baudelaire about the albatross whose powerful wings become awkward when he is brought down to earth. "Ses ailes de géant l'empêchent de marcher." The only signs of another life, now vanished, were the surrealist paintings of his friends which amazingly had accompanied him on his perilous journey and now lined the dismal walls of his home in exile. His friends, Yves Tanguy and Max Ernst, had married American women and made a definite break with Europe. In fact they were listed in the Museum of Modern Art as "American painters." Breton was in limbo and it did not take one long to realize that there VOL. XXXVI, NO. 4 21 L'Esprit Créateur was no chance of his ever becoming Americanized. He talked in reserved fashion about things that reach out to the fundamentals of existence. He paced the floor the whole time he talked, followed by his little daughter. In a world full of static and bombardment he was expecting a message that was not getting through to him. But to survive he had to believe that there had to be significance behind the senseless slaughter. Verbal defeat was a component of political defeat, which meant that the Word had failed to transform the world as he and before him Rimbaud had wished. Twice he had served in the French military, and in between he had had exalted moments when he had felt that with a change of venue and a rekindling of the imagination the human creature could change his life and that of society regardless of the ideological persuasions of the moment. His was not a concept of "One World" where everybody thought alike, but a utopia where personal integrity made differences compatible. He had jumped in and out of Communism but found that his own created surrealism was more constructive, and in its disdain of existing conventions its first purpose was to preserve individual freedom. In the years between the two world wars this young man out of a middle class family had attracted youths from all over the world to Paris and catalyzed their creative abilities in the various arts. When the Nazi Putsch occurred in 1934, Breton organized an all-night protest on February 6, and proposed a general strike on fascism on the part of world syndicalism ; he called on Léon Blum, the incumbent leader of the Front Populaire to intervene and stop Hitler. It was a tall order, and Blum did not take him...


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