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  • Allegories of the FutureTowards a Critical Theory of Surrealism
  • Jensen Suther (bio)

I. Surrealism as Reaction

The 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism, authored by the de facto leader of the movement, André Breton, begins unexpectedly, with an adverb, indicating through grammar the movement's principle aim, the modulation of the predicate or the inflection of the experience of man: "So strong is the belief in life, in what is most fragile in life—reallife, I mean—that in the end this belief is lost" (1972, 3). The ideal belief in the manifold possibilities of life is persistently belied by experience, and thus the belief itself becomes its own opposite, converting into a passive acceptance of the existent. The loss of this belief, Breton will continue, occurs because "man, that inveterate dreamer, daily more discontent with his destiny, has trouble assessing the objects he has been led to use" (3). Life has become a "second nature," a field of diminished things that never fails to remain the same, and what once seemed a multiplicity of paths and diverse futures, branching forth from the [End Page 231] now like tiny rivulets rushing toward new and unknown bodies, is revealed instead to be just so many routes to the same.

Reflection on one's childhood will throw this condition into relief: "If he still retains a certain lucidity, all he can do is turn back toward his childhood which, however his guides and mentors may have botched it, still strikes as somehow charming" (3). The newness that permeated every experience of childhood contrasts starkly with the eternal sameness of the adult present. But since such reflection cannot alter one's life, it only serves to make the reality of it that much more painful. This "everyman" of modernity with which the Manifesto begins "belongs body and soul to an imperative practical necessity" (4): his life revolves around the labor he performs, is conditioned by his constant struggle for self-preservation. All of his hopes are connected with now-ancient experiences, with the feeling of love he may have encountered in his youth. He dreams in vain of experiencing it again. To this hopelessly abject condition of modern man Breton will oppose his own ideal, just after invoking the muse of surrealism, "beloved imagination": "The mere word 'freedom' is the only one that still excites me" (4).

While the meaning of "freedom" in surrealism is ambiguous, having as it does at least two potential meanings, at this point I would like to take up the meaning intended by Breton in the 1924 Manifesto, which is related to his rejection of reason and adoption of the logic of dreams. After apologizing for his own inability to stay his analytic powers, to prevent them from distorting or otherwise infringing the alogical logic of dreams, Breton poses a rhetorical question, which functions also as an indictment of his own attempt to approach surrealism programmatically: "When will we have sleeping logicians, sleeping philosophers? I would like to sleep, in order to surrender myself to the dreamers, the way I surrender myself to those who read me with eyes wide open; in order to stop imposing, in this realm, the conscious rhythm of my thought" (12). Dreams disrupt the logic of reason, and when confronted by the latter, the formalizing sieve through which the seeking subject hopes to attain their rational content, dreams become evasive, or else they dry up, enervated by the schematizing of reason. If philosophers and logicians could perform their work while in a somnolent state, perhaps like dreams their conclusions and results, vitalized by a certain senselessness, would remain fluid and alive. Surrealist freedom, then, is freedom from reason. [End Page 232]

For Breton, surrealism consists in the resolution of two states, dream and reality, "which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality" (14). Breton suggests that what defines dreams, and endows them with their superiority, is the state of immediacy they induce, and into which they hurl the subject. He cites as an exemplary mode of aesthetic production that of Saint-Pol-Roux, who each evening before sleeping would post to his door a sign that read: "THE...


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pp. 231-250
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