Surrealism can be brought into an interesting focus by looking away (for a while) from its friends, influences and descendents, and concentrating on its enemies.
This is presented as a few tentative observations, open for discussion. The focus here is on Breton, but as Breton never had as much control over the movement as we usually assume (or he might have liked), there are plenty of exceptions – notably Dalí who deserves a note to himself at the end.
The Bourgeois ‘Establishment’: Breton and most of the early Surrealists had been Dadaists, and whilst they found Dada limiting, they retained Dada’s loathing for the Victorian/ Edwardian Establishment and its values – conservatism, nationalism, chauvinism, piety, moralism, reverence for flag, country, church and family, submission to authority, not to mention capitalism, imperialism and militarism – that had marched Europe into the catastrophe of the First World War.
Their anti-militarism was not precisely pacifism, however. They supported armed anti-colonial struggles and during World War Two the Surrealist group La Main à Plume engaged in armed resistance against the Nazi occupation.
Religious Orthodoxy: most of the Surrealists had been raised as Catholics, but rejected the Catholic church, its dogmas, hierarchy and ‘priestcraft’. They retained an interest in the Occult however, notable Alchemy (Ernst was influential here). After 1945 Breton became even more mystical with his interest in the ‘The Great Transparent Ones’, and Robert Graves’ treatise on mystical poetry The White Goddess (1948) was popular with several of the women Surrealists (notably Leonora Carrington).
Scientism: a common misperception is that Surrealism was irrationalist to the point of rejecting science. That is not quite accurate. They admired Psychoanalysis (the Freudian variety, not Jung), most admired Marxism too – both of which presented themselves as sciences, or at least wissenschaften – and ran their own Bureau of Surrealist Research in the mid 1920s (presided over by Artaud). What they did detest was 19th century ‘Positive Philosophy’ or ‘Positivism’, which had established a stranglehold over science and imposed strict control with a dogmatic rule book of empiricism, materialism, quantification, determinism and reductionism, to the exclusion of all things metaphysical, mental or imaginary.
The Surrealists were much more taken with non-causal relationships than with the determinism of the Positivists. Serendipity, juxtaposition, chance encounter, dialectics, collage and correspondences (the more uncanny the better) – hysterical, symbolic, perverse and paranoid transformations, not dull and predictable cause and effect tramlines.
Psychoanalysis was putting up a fight against Positivism, and so was the New Physics, which with its ‘spooky action’, quantum activity, butterfly effects and the like, was also willing to contemplate more things in heaven and earth than could be fitted into the Positivist straight-jacket.
‘Pataphysics grew out of the climate that spawned the New Physics, and of course Surrealism loved that.
Technocracy: linked to their loathing of Positivist Scientism, the Surrealists rejected attempts to scientistically regulate life, and held the ‘Purism’ of Le Corbusier and his ilk in particular contempt. The imposition of the dogma of ‘form follows function’, in particular in the design of houses as ‘machines for living in’, architecture and town planning, promising a future of socially hygienic regimented and robotised life, was anathema to the Surrealists, who embraced flânerie and its appreciation of the city as palimpsest of fragmentary history, unruly memory, chance encounter and coincidence, as an antidote to the imposition of the dead mechanistic landscape of the planned city.
Imperialism: Surrealism politicised over the colonial war in Morocco in 1925, supporting the independence movement against French imperialism, long before anti-imperialism was adopted by the mainstream left. They retained their anti-imperialist stance consistently through the Algerian and Vietnam wars after World War Two. Surrealism was always anti-racist and was from the start a truly internationalist movement.
Misogyny: Surrealism has often been slated for sexism for its ‘objectification’ of the female body, although it offered a more welcoming environment for women artists than any other 20th century movement, many of whom found the female body a valuable motif in their own work. Penelope Rosemont suggests that while not being exactly feminist itself, Surrealism was on the same side as feminism against the same enemies – patriarchy, the family, the Church etc., – and notes that they defended the anarchist Germaine Berton against accusations of being an ‘unnatural’ and ‘unwomanly’ monster when she assassinated a far right newspaper editor.
Sexual repression: Surrealism was enthusiastically erotically minded, emphatic that both men and women are libidinally driven, and Breton saw Eroticism as consistent with Psychoanalysis, Marxism and Alchemy in providing a convulsive-orgasmic view of social and psychological transformation.
However, Breton was himself willing to go only so far with sexual liberation, and retained views that many considered old fashioned or even prudish. He was chivalrous in his manner, disliked prostitution as demeaning to women, and was wary of the sexual freedom of the 1960s as demeaning to sex itself. He favoured a more ritualised approach to sex as a kind of sacrament, more consistent with the work of some of the women Surrealist writers and artists.
Nowadays he would be open to the charge of ‘Whorephobia’, and also, perhaps more damagingly, to Homophobia, as he vociferously condemned homosexuality and equated it with pederasty. Jean Cocteau was a particular target for his ire. [Not that it is an excuse, but, like many homophobes, Breton’s struggle with his own sexual orientation is fairly evident in his attitudes toward Jacques Vaché, from whose suicide in 1918 Breton never recovered ].
Many associated with Surrealism went much further than Breton in opposing sexual repression. Georges Bataille’s faction were particularly challenging to Breton here, Bataille being much more of a libertine, enthusiastically favouring prostitution, and pushing the sexual boat out (so to speak) as far as he could, with the support of several Surrealists of both sexes (e.g. Hans Bellmer, Toyen, Leonor Fini etc.).
Plenty of other people in the movement, including Desnos and Queneau , were homosexual (as indeed were the founders of Absurdism, Jarry and Roussel), so it is hard to define Surrealism in toto as Whorephobic and/or Homophobic, despite Breton’s personal prejudices.
Drugs and the ‘Cult’ of Madness: the Surrealist challenge to ‘reality’ has been interpreted in some quarters as a call to abandon sanity as mundane and mediocre and indulge madness as a more authentic, liberated and superior frame of mind. This view was especially popular in the 1960s, where it was linked to the use of hallucinogenic drugs to ‘free the mind’. Breton certainly found hysteria insightful and something to be explored for its own value (unlike Freud who saw it as something to be cured), but repudiated the idea that madness provided any kind of liberation, insisting it was if anything a more restrictive prison than everyday ‘reality’ [Artaud took a different view]. What was of value, however, was the deliberate and conscious evocation or simulation of ‘mad thinking’ to release poetic creativity.
Drugs (except alcohol and tobacco) Breton had no time for – another point of contention with Cocteau who had an appetite for narcotics.
Fascism and Nazism: Breton and his friends were quick off the mark in opposing Fascism when it appeared in Italy in 1922 (while Shaw, Wells and even Lenin were willing to consider it for possible ‘good points’). Surrealism was fervently anti-Nazi as well.
Stalinism: Breton led some of the Surrealists into the Communist Party in 1927, but by 1930 was thoroughly disillusioned with it, and left in 1933, just as Stalin began his purges. Breton gravitated towards Trotsky (whom he met and worked with on the manifesto Towards a Free Revolutionary Art in 1938). Later Breton became more of an anarcho-socialist (and even a kind of feminist) in the tradition of 19th century Utopian thinker Charles Fourier.
There were a lot of exceptions here. Aragon and Eluard remained in the Communist party, as did Tzara, and Picasso joined it later. Frida Kahlo was a loyal Stalinist too (despite her affair with Trotsky). But as Communists these mostly became ex-Surrealists or even anti-Surrealists so it perhaps remains fair to say that the Surrealist movement itself pioneered an anti-Stalinist ‘New Left’ three decades before the idea caught on elsewhere.
A Note on Dalí: The most consistent exception to the stances taken by Breton and his group was Dalí. He embraced capitalism with gusto, remained a loyal Roman Catholic, rejected Marxism, made his peace with Franco’s Fascist regime in Spain, dabbled in racial politics, and was finally kicked out of the Surrealist movement for his ‘Hitler complex’ (responding to Nazism on more aesthetic grounds than political ones). In his defence he later assured Ernst that he was not a fascist, ‘merely an opportunist’. In the 1960s he identified himself as a kind of cyborg, deciding his brain was ‘a cybernetic computer for making money.’