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Reviewed by:
  • Surréalismes: l’esprit et l’histoire by Jacqueline Chénieux-Gendron
  • Timothy Mathews
Surréalismes: l’esprit et l’histoire. Par Jacqueline Chénieux-Gendron. (Champion classiques. Essais, 22.) Paris: Honoré Champion, 2014. 374 pp., ill.

This remarkable and absorbing book tells a multi-layered intellectual history as a lived and living experience. It follows parallel paths continually inflecting each other: the first telling the history of the surrealist group, and the second the evolution of the surrealist idea. Engaging with Foucault, Jacqueline Chénieux-Gendron sets out the surrealist stall. Modern intellectual history categorizes knowledge the better to control human behaviour. Sexuality is systemically colonized, turned into ‘une machine à intégrer’ (p. 15), and impulse is crammed into orthodoxy. André Breton responded with ‘un vaste refus de l’interdit’, in Chénieux-Gendron’s expressive formulation, in order to reclaim ‘la vraie vie’: life lived for its power to create. Chénieux-Gendron traces the vicissitudes of automatism, the defining surrealist notion. Self-questioning and re-energizing, automatism prompts ever new ways to entrap, perform, and expose the orthodoxies of divide and rule — the division of conscious from unconscious, and beyond that, the division of the human subject from its possibilities. The equally defining theory and practice of ‘le hasard objectif’ emerged in the 1930s. Where Aragon and Duchamp had earlier embraced the disruptive [End Page 419] power of chance, produced circumstantially as well as created by design, Chénieux-Gendron emphasizes that, for Breton, the task was now to show the intersections of mental and material life. To think Engels and Freud together in this way is to reclaim sign and event as a lived interaction. Form as much as content is the domain of the surrealist enterprise. The book explores this form-driven enterprise panoramically in evocative and sinuous critical language, in which synthesis is not only fuelled by speculation but refashioned by it. For example, the surrealist interests in symbolism, primitivism, and psychiatry are woven together as part of an integrated pursuit of mental and moral health, developed later through travel and ethnography. Moreover, Chénieux-Gendron tells what she calls ‘l’autobiographie du groupe’ as a journey across internal fault-lines, which she explores as a feature of the evolving theorization of a multiple, yet still comprehensive social revolt (p. 139). A pursuit of solidarity emerges consistently, and the construction of a new mythology is central to it. Chénieux-Gendron explores the ways in which the poetic, formal work with verbal and visual expression of this centrifugal group of writers, artists, and thinkers promotes synthesis philosophically, and collectivity socially. In this reading surrealism forces an interaction of poststructuralism and phenomenology — linking a Barthesian concern for social codes and their affective pull, with Yves Bonnefoy’s stress on the responsibility of each of us to be present in our own lives. Surrealism emerges as a living practice, a continuing effort to ‘aiguiser l’activité d’interprétation des formes’ (p. 127). This understanding of thought as the forms of thought, and in particular as the forms of art, leaves individual surrealists dynamically poised between socialist realist art and conceptual art. Along with its companion, the updated and developed Inventer le réel: le surréalisme et le roman (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2014), this book is a summation of the work so far of an inspiring scholar, able not only to embrace but to illuminate the dynamic interaction of form, theory, and history that defines the surrealist ambition.

Timothy Mathews
University College London


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pp. 419-420
Launched on MUSE
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