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Holocaust Visions:
Surrealism and Existentialism
in the Poetry of Paul Celan

by Clarise Samuels

Table of Contents

Chapter 2: Revolution: The Ideology of Surrealism

THE French writer André Breton established the surrealism movement in a series of manifestoes. Breton declared that his goal was to develop a revolutionary system for the creation of art that would rebel against all the established, traditional, and more conservative schools of art. Seeking more than just a new trend, Breton wanted to develop a school of art that would function as a working sociopolitical system, as well as a system for the examination of the nature and source of creative ideas. In short, Breton attempted to devise an ideology. Two important manifestoes of surrealism, published in 1924 and 1930, documented his fervent desire to rally the world of art and literature to his side.

But Breton had not been the first to rebel. The naturalist playwrights of the late nineteenth century had already shocked society with their stark depiction of such heretofore unmentionable social problems as alcoholism and illegitimate children, and the expressionists had already emerged with their emphasis on the devastating effects of the human sex drive. Then came the Dadaists, from whom Breton learned the philosophy of revolutionary art, and who issued their own manifesto in 1918. Dada signified a radical desire to turn away from traditional values in art, more specifically those values that were regarded as being bourgeois. With startling incongruities and a sense of the absurd, Dada attempted to shock society with the use of unconventional forms, chance juxtapositions, and outlandish themes.

Breton originally made his debut as a revolutionary artist hailing Dada as the vehicle of deliverance that would revitalize the arts. Dada had begun as a reaction to expressionism, to which it owed much of its impetus. The expressionists, influenced by Marxist idealism, had advocated a more humane and enlightened society. In their art forms, they sought individualistic explorations of this enlightened society by probing a psychological, inner reality, and they encouraged artists to express their emotions. These innovative interpretations, where nature was transformed into a psychological reality rather than the exterior, empirical reality perceived by the naked eye, were offered as an alternative to the conservative art judged by bourgeois standards.

Despite the expressionists’ desire for innovation and change, the Dadaists maintained that they were not fooled by the revolutionary slant in expressionist doctrine. It was a doctrine that was too mild for Dadaist taste and one that they eventually rejected. Richard Brinkmann notes that the Dadaists were not convinced that the expressionists were true revolutionaries who had embraced Marxist ideology. From the Dadaist point of view, the lack of content in the expressionists’ work invited the interpretation of any number of ideologies. They felt that this had the ultimate effect of confirming the status quo of the existing social order, no matter how revolutionary the expressionists might pretend to be. The Dadaists nonetheless remained inspired by the expressionists, and certain influences can be observed in the presence of broken grammatical structures in Dadaist poetry, the borrowing from primitive, non-European cultures in art, and the emphasis on the alienation of the individual. Yet when it came to the ideological premise for these new forms, the Dadaists rejected expressionism, and they devised premises that were more extreme and fanatical.

The Dadaists expressed their impatience with expressionist ideology in the Dada Manifesto of 1918:

Has expressionism fulfilled our expectations for an art that is a ballot of our most vital concerns?


Have the expressionists fulfilled our expectations for an art that burns the essence of life into our flesh?


In their intense desire for action, the Dadaists adopted an anti-art that concentrated wholly on being contradictory. They sought to overthrow, destroy, and negate the prevailing middle-class values of their day. Their art was shocking, absurd, and defiant. The Dadaists’ nihilism lent itself well to the Marxist spirit that prevailed at the time. Radical nonconformists, they resented any manifestation of established authority:

Dada is like your hopes: nothing
like your paradise: nothing
like your idols: nothing
like your political leaders: nothing
like your heroes: nothing
like your artists: nothing
like your religions: nothing

Yet the Dadaists never explicitly espoused Marx in any of their writings, and they made no claims to an ideology regarding the enlightened society or the New Man touted by the expressionists. Hans Richter, who participated in the Dada movement from the beginning, remarked that although he saw Lenin in the library, and heard both Lenin and Axelrod speak in Bern, he knew little about Lenin’s philosophy and Lenin knew even less about Dada. But Richter also concedes that all of the world revolutionaries during that period, the Tolstoyists, Dadaists, and the anarchists, were thrown together at that particular moment in time, “even if they wanted nothing to do with each other.”

Brinkmann clarifies the ideology behind the Dadaist impulse, which he believes was based on the hopelessness of devising any practical plan to change the existing order, by maintaining that the Dadaists wanted nothing less than the dissolution of art as such. They hoped to engender a new consciousness based on pure chance, because through chance juxtapositions they would somehow reassemble the fragments of civilization, art, and culture. With the radical destruction of all previous artistic traditions and conventions, the Dadaists shared in the revolutionary fervor of the period but not in the Marxist ideology supporting it. In fact, apart from their unrestrained nihilism, the Dadaists had no ideology to speak of and were decidedly apolitical. This aimlessness would prove to be their downfall, but not before they had created their own brand of avant-gardism that was to have lasting influences on the surrealists.

By 1924 André Breton, who participated in the Dadaist movement, had became disenchanted with Dada’s lack of direction. The destructive, revolutionary qualities that sought to scandalize society and regenerate art with absurd and even grotesque images were often misinterpreted by the critics as being frivolous, meaningless gestures. Breton sought to correct this by imposing ideology upon a loose confederation of wayward artistic impulses. For that he chose Freud, and through Hegel he sought out Marx. Calling his new movement surrealism, to describe the “surreality” that the new ideology would produce, Breton and his followers declared that Dada was dead, and they officially buried it.

In defining a mission for the surrealists in the first manifesto of surrealism published in 1924, Breton drew upon the works of Sigmund Freud to aid the artist in an apparent search for truth. There is a hint of German romanticism in Breton’s endorsement of an individual’s search within for an alter reality that resides in the subconscious. However, unlike the romantics, Breton did not seek a metaphysical universe through an inner journey that approaches the realm of the magical and the mystical. By turning within, the artist accomplishes a self-realization that enables a realistic ideal to be embraced by an enlightened society. It is then society’s responsibility to renegotiate social values based on the new ideological premises. Breton outlines the transition from the concern with the individual to the concern with society in his second manifesto of surrealism.

Breton’s emphasis continued to hark back to the Dadaist individual who searched within in order to obviate conventional forms that had stagnated under society’s approving eye. The similarities between Dada and surrealism are apparent. William Rubin pointed out that many of the characteristics of surrealism, such as the experimentation with automatism, accident, bimorphism, and found objects as part of a program for social revolution, had already been present in Dada to a certain extent but had existed in a state that could only be called chaotic. Freudian theory would organize those chaotic impulses for Breton, who instead of using Freud’s methods as a therapy, would use it as a philosophy and a system for interpreting artistic meaning.

Like the Dadaists, Breton despised the bourgeois layer of values that acted as a mask to cover up imagination and creativity. (Celan would come to feel that this bourgeois layer actually covered up truth, if not reality.) Yet instead of resorting to the Dadaist decree of unmasking the primitive and the unaffected simply for the sake of the exposure, and for the sake of indulging the radical behavior that would lead to such exposure, Breton used Freud to give the artist a method and a goal. In this way he hoped to subvert the pointless frivolity to which the Dadaists had fallen prey. The method was Freudian free association, which Breton transformed into automatic writing, and the goal was self-realization through the investigation of dreams, emotions, and altered states of consciousness. The dream especially offered the artist a bridge to his innermost creativity (“Can’t the dream also be used in solving the fundamental questions of life?” Breton asked ). It was somewhere between dream and reality that Breton hoped to find the absolute state of reality, a state that he apparently felt was closer to truth. He hoped to merge dream and reality into a more authentic state that he called “surreality,” and maintained, “It is in quest of this surreality that I am goingÅc.” In this fashion the dream offered a technique with which to impose order on the chaotic impulses of the Dadaists, although the nature of the dream was such that it contained a chaotic element in itself. It was left to the Freudian tools of dream interpretation to construe meaning and order from the dream content.

The Freudian method of dream interpretation and free association permitted the surrealists to construe images that were filled with the same sort of contradictions and absurdities that had been the trademarks of the Dadaists. Now, however, they did so with a sense of order, rather than with the previously uncontrolled impulses of the Dadaists. After searching the depths of the unconscious mind and offering up these images as art, the surrealists could then interpret these same images using Freudian analysis. Even without interpretation the framework of the dream form itself lent these chaotic images a structure that contained them within certain limitations. No matter how nonsensical and absurd, the dreamlike quality of such images imparted the paradoxical logic that the illogical dream always possessed.

Ultimately, the effect of the two artistic movements was the same. Breton was as bent on undermining bourgeois values as the Dadaists had been. Surrealism was, by definition, “Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” By negating existing aesthetic and moral values, the surrealists hoped to redefine social judgments and relationships. They desired to establish a superior society based on genuine and authentic values, rather than the false values of a capitalistic society dominated by the middle classes.

But Breton did not hold out false hope for a utopia that was so idealistic it could never be attainable. He was much too pragmatic for that. He described the ideology supporting his new and better society in the second manifesto of surrealism in 1930. By implementing the ideas of Hegel and Marx, Breton wanted to extend the personal enlightenment of the artistic individual to include the masses and thus produce an enlightened society. Marxism provided an ideological basis for two Dadaistic principles adopted by the surrealists: contradiction and revolution. The Dadaist style of using negation just for the sake of a general contradiction that was meant to be shocking to society now had an ideological foundation. The contradictions were no longer simply nihilistic; as defined by the second manifesto of surrealism, they were dialectical as well. That is, they were part of Hegel’s continually unfurling historical process, where contradictions perpetually collided to form a superior entity, the synthesis, which then merged again with still another contradictory force. Using contradiction as a predominant stylistic device, Breton sought the artistic equivalent of creating a thesis and antithesis, whose dialectical synthesis would contribute to the evolution of a superior society.

Wiedemann-Wolf commented on this dialectical principle and noted that the surrealists’ psychological reality did not stand in complete contrast to objective or visible reality. Surrealist reality embraced visible reality, as well as the contradictory realities of dreams, fantasies, and the fantastic. The dialectical principle caused them to fuse together and exist synergistically in a new unity, the two worlds superior in their state of synthesis to either world by itself.

Hegel provided surrealist ideology with more than just dialecticism. His influence also can be observed in the philosophical significance that the surrealists attributed to the metaphor, which was for them more than just a part of speech - it was, as Anna Balakian noted, the “crystallization of concept.” The metaphor, particularly the unusual metaphor composed of two or more parts having no logical connection to each other, became instrumental for the surrealists in the presentation of their imagery. Thus, Hegel pointed the way for the most conspicuous surrealist device, the unusual metaphor, or what was rather the shocking metaphor. It was the surrealists’ most effective stylistic device in the art of portraying the absurd, and the most potent weapon in the mission to undermine bourgeois values and relationships.

The successful metaphor helped to create what Breton called the surreal image, which had the following characteristics: the image contains an immense amount of contradiction; part of the image is strangely concealed; it creates a sensation, but then ends weakly; it “derives from itself a ridiculous formal justification”; it is hallucinatory; it lends to the abstract properties that are possessed by the concrete or the reverse; it negates basic physical properties; and it provokes laughter. All of these conditions relied heavily on the metaphor to fulfill their purpose.

There was another Hegelian influence as well. Balakian notes that the surrealists exhibited a Hegelian aversion to the prosaic mind. Hegel called upon poetry to be the universal art; the surrealists concurred and elevated poetry to the level of a poet’s priesthood, which presumed a certain elitism for those who were practitioners of it. Consequently, Hegel’s philosophy communicated to the surrealists not just the ideological basis for contradiction as a dialectical process, but also the arduous concern for language in portraying images composed of metaphors, and the priestly sense of destiny in view of their glorified art.

But it was Marxist theory that infused the surrealists’ quest with a sense of urgency and motion. Breton was unwilling to risk becoming a rarefied and little-known enclave in art and literature, and he wrote, “I am trying to defend Surrealism against the accusation that it is, after all, no more than an intellectual pastime like any other.” He sought the same infamy that the Dadaists had enjoyed, and like the Dadaists he promoted drastic change. To give this nihilism a sense of purpose, Breton used Marx as his vanguard, and he called for revolution: “Everything remains to be done, every means must be worth trying, in order to lay waste to the ideas of family, country, religion.”

Breton described the basic act of surrealism as one that was violent and radical, an act that was like dashing down the street with a gun in hand and firing blindly into the crowd. He was careful to clarify that Marxist theory did not usurp the original Freudian bent in surrealist ideology. Freudian criticism was still instrumental for the evaluation of ideas. Marxist doctrine was needed to address the realm of social problems. With the two combined, Breton had elaborated on the Dadaist concern for individuality in two significant ways. Through Freud the individual search for truth, reality, and self-realization had been methodically systemized. Through Marx the individual had been placed back in a social context, one that promised an enlightened society formed not just by the masses, but by masses of enlightened individuals who had achieved a state of authentic “surreality.”

Although Breton was most likely unconscious of it, the epistemological basis for that ideology, existentialism, was already in place. It had begun with Søren Kierkegaard and had been propagated by Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and eventually Jean-Paul Sartre, who published his most significant works after Breton’s heyday but whose influence was felt by later surrealists, including Celan. This epistemology provided a philosophical foundation for surrealism’s political and artistic program, and led to the development of an existentialist aesthetic in art and literature.

Proceed to Chapter 3...

Copyright © 1993 by Clarise Samuels

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