Journal of Modern Literature 25.3-4 (2002) 58-74
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Loving Freud Madly:
Surrealism between Hysterical and Paranoid Modernism
University of Pennsylvania
The question of whether Surrealism played a positive or a negative role in the dissemination of Freudian ideas sounds rather blunt or normative, but it is a question I would like to pose less to judge Surrealism by trying to catch it in its distortions and blind spots than to test the validity and relevance of the "compromise formations" that have been produced in quantity during the process of globalization through which Freud's theories have gone in more than a century. This domain is huge, but happily the axis linking Freud to Breton has been explored, 1 while excellent essays have been recently devoted to the Lacan-Dalí 2 connection. Popular culture seems to have adopted Surrealism and Freudianism with similarly warping hyperboles. If the jocular "This is hysterical!" may be blamed more on Charcot than on Freud, the phrase "This is Surrealistic" often rings as quasi-equivalent to "This is Freudian." Beyond a surprising or shocking façade, one expects some readability, plus if not immediately heavy-handed sexual symbols, at least the suggestion that a carefully arranged thematic disorder will be recomposed formally so as to suggest the hidden logic of dream images. In a telling fashion, the 1998 exhibition on "Freud, Conflict and Culture" 3 mounted by the Library of Congress, after intense controversy, made much of its display of audio-visual documents; beyond illegible manuscripts in Gothic script and disappointing realia — such as a few rings or Freud's couch floating in the air — these well chosen films excerpts mostly from Hollywood classics made the strong point that Freudianism, although contested, survives thanks to a popular culture which it has literally shaped and permeated. Perhaps, then, the same may [End Page 58] hold true of Surrealism. It seems that its last public flowering on a large scale was linked to the counter-culture of the 1960s. In France, particularly with May 1968, Surrealism colored a juvenile rebellion creatively in more than one way. Perhaps the hindsight afforded once we have stepped more boldly into this still new century will show that these cultural phenomena converge without completely meeting or that they follow a minimally curving parallax.
Breton and Freud were from the start engaged in a waltz of avoidance and a tango of misunderstandings. These missteps nevertheless disclose a deeper harmony, while Lacan and Dalí, apparently the best of friends until quite late, flaunted ideological overlappings so as to conceal a deeper rift. The first missed encounter between Freudianism and Surrealism was linked to the promotion of concepts such as psychic automatism, unconscious dictation, the "over-determination" of dream images (Freud's crucial Ueberdeterminierung) and also, perhaps more importantly, hysteria taken as a creative manifestation. The second encounter promoting the concept of paranoia seems to have been a more successful endeavor. By narrowing the historical focus on the 1920s and early 1930s, one can observe how suddenly the surrealist theory of Hysteria was transformed into a Surrealist theory of Paranoia.
It looks as if the links between Breton and Freud had been marked from the start by a series of attempts at seduction followed by rejection and absurd bickering, in short, by a movement that might call up the very logic of hysteria. Breton, as is well-known, began by studying psychiatry and it was in this function that he served as a medical intern during the First World War. We know how closely Breton had read Freud at a time when most French schools of psychiatry totally ignored him. Having started his medical studies in the fall of 1913, Breton after the declaration of war was sent to the neuro-psychiatric ward of Saint-Dizier in August 1916. In a ward supervised by a former assistant of Charcot, Breton read voraciously the psychiatric literature available, which included a summary of Freud's ideas thanks to a compendium provided by Doctor Régis (Précis de Psychiatrie...