Break of Day

Break of Day

by AndrT Breton

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Originally published in France in 1934, Break of Day is André Breton’s second collection of critical and polemical essays, following The Lost Steps (Nebraska 1996). In fewer than two hundred pages, it captures the first full decade of the surrealist movement. The collection opens with an essay composed in 1924 that examines key elements of

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Originally published in France in 1934, Break of Day is André Breton’s second collection of critical and polemical essays, following The Lost Steps (Nebraska 1996). In fewer than two hundred pages, it captures the first full decade of the surrealist movement. The collection opens with an essay composed in 1924 that examines key elements of surrealism and concludes with Breton’s harsh revaluation in 1933 of automatic writing.
Among the other essays in the volume are “Burial Denied” and “In Self-Defense,” two pieces that, in translator Mark Polizzotti’s words, “mark surrealism’s conscious break from the mainstream and the beginning of its attempts to work alongside the French Communist Party.” Also included are “Psychiatry Standing before Surrealism,” which addresses Breton’s complex, ambivalent views on mental illness and the emerging psychiatric establishment; “Introduction to Achim von Arnim's Strange Tales,” which reveals surrealism’s debt to such precursors as the German romantics and delineates a surrealistic aesthetic of the macabre; and “Picasso in His Element,” in which Breton demonstrates his formidable talents as a critic of the visual arts.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Originally published in France in 1934, this complements previously translated collections of essays by the leading theorist of Surrealism (The Lost Steps and Free Rein, 1996), this time focusing on works written during the period of Surrealist maturation (1924–33). Ranging significantly in content and style, this compendium does justice to Breton's complex character, just as it pinpoints some innate contradictions within Surrealism. Despite that movement's "will towards complete disorientation from everything," Breton demonstrates an acute awareness of reality around him, addressing politics, ideology, art, criminal trials, psychiatry, and mesmerism. Many of his pronouncements betray an intimate knowledge of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, whom he holds in high esteem. "Surrealism's total commitment to dialectical materialism" and to "the admirable cause of the proletariat" prompts him to apply rigid ideological criteria to artists and writers. He dismisses out of hand such literary icons as Claudel, Cocteau, and France, all of whom he condemns as counterrevolutionaries due to their association with the French literary establishment. Meanwhile, Breton extols everything exhibiting even a grain of revolt against the existing order of things. In his effusive praise of Dalí, Eluard, and Russian Futurist poet Mayakovsky, the Surrealist credo remains in the forefront, with its subversion, voluntary hallucination, and "automatic writing." Although Surrealist creative output failed to implement the goal of automatic, or subconscious, writing, Breton considers it the cornerstone of modern art, comparing it to mediumistic composition. It's refreshing to hear Breton acknowledge his indebtednessto certain personalities from the past, particularly German Romantic Achim von Arnim and French Symbolist Rimbaud. The ultimate goal of art, according to Breton, is not to describe what can be observed by all, but to give flesh and blood to the unseen world accessible only to the artist's perception. Breton's flowery prose, permeated with bizarre imagery and disjointed fantasies and punctuated by frequent ellipsis, is made still more challenging to read in the present translation: what sounds highfalutin in French often degenerates into awkward, run-on English sentences.

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Product Details

UNP - Nebraska
Publication date:
French Modernist Library Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)

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Chapter One

to the Discourse on
the Paucity of Reality

Wireless": there's a word that has all toorecently entered our vocabulary, a locution whoserise has been too rapid for it not to contain many ofthe dreams of our epoch, for it not to reveal to me one of the veryfew specifically new determinations of our minds. Feeble referencepoints such as these are what sometimes give me the illusionof attempting a great adventure, of looking to some small degreelike a gold prospector: I seek the gold of time. So what do theyevoke, these words I chose? Barely the coastal sands, a few fieldspiders intertwined in the hollow of a willow tree — a willow orthe sky, for no doubt it's a wide-range antenna, then islands,nothing but islands ... Crete, where I must be Theseus, butTheseus forever caught in his crystal labyrinth.

    Wireless telegraph, wireless telephone, wireless imagination,as they say. The induction is easy, but I also believe it's legitimate.Invention, human discovery, the faculty we are so parsimoniouslygranted, over time, to know and possess things no one had anyinkling of before us, is bound to throw us into great confusion.On the side of truth, this modesty would alarm us less if it did notoccasionally pretend to yield up, abandon to us the tiniest of itssecrets, only to revert quickly to its hesitations. The ill humor ofmost men who ultimately stopped falling for these paltry revelations,who contented themselves once and for all with only invariabledata, the way one looks at mountains or the sea — classicalminds, in short — is what nonetheless keeps them from takingfulladvantage of a life that, granted, does not essentially differ fromall past lives but that on the other hand must not be so vain as toset itself such limits: André Breton (1896-19..).

    I am in the hall of a castle, my dark lantern in hand, and oneby one I illuminate the sparkling suits of armor. Don't go thinkingit's some evildoer's trick. One of these suits of armor seemsalmost my size; if only I could put it on and find in it a little of theconsciousness of a fourteenth-century man. O eternal theater,you demand that not only to play another's role, but even to dictatethat role, we should take on his disguise; that the mirrorbefore which we pose should reflect back a foreign image of ourselves.Imagination can do anything, except make us look, despiteour natural appearance, like someone other than ourselves.Literary speculation is illicit as soon as it sets before an authorcharacters that he deems right or wrong, after having createdthem from whole cloth. "Speak for yourself," I would tell him."Speak about yourself; you'll tell me so much more. I do not recognizeyour power of life or death over these pseudo-humanbeings who spring armed and disarmed from your fancy. Justleave me your memoirs and have done with it. Give me realnames; prove to me that you've never held sway over your protagonists."I don't like it when people shilly-shally, nor when theyhide. I am in the hall of a castle, my dark lantern in hand, and oneby one I illuminate the sparkling suits of armor. Later, in thissame hall — who knows? — someone will casually put on my suit.From pedestal to pedestal, the great silent colloquy will continue:

me lift my head from myhands and the din of futile things begins to deafen me once again.I am in the world, quite in the world, and even darkened rightnow by daylight's end. I know that in Paris, on the boulevards,the beautiful lighted signs are beginning to appear. These signsoccupy a large place in my daily walks, and yet the truth is thatthey convey only things that annoy me. At my window, I amthinking, too, of the roughly equal distribution of human beingsin private or public places, from one day to the next. How can oneexplain, for instance, why a normally full auditorium shouldnever be nearly empty even for one evening, simply becauseeveryone had other things to do? (I'm talking about theaterswhere the seats are very cheap or free.) Why do trains, in a giventime of year, always carry more or less the same number of passengers?What is striking in such cases is the absence of coincidence.I indulge in remarks like this all the time, which mightseem ludicrous but which give an accurate picture of the obstaclesthat anyone's thought might have to overcome. There is alsothe importance I'm forced to attach to heat and cold — in short,the entire process of continual distraction that makes me abandonone idea per friend, one friend per idea; that forces me to movearound when I'm writing, to interrupt myself in the middle of asentence, as if I needed reassurance that a given object was in itscorrect place in the room, that one or another of my articulationswas working right. The existence (duly noted in advance) of thisbouquet I'm about to smell or this catalog I'm leafing throughshould be enough for me: but no. I have to assure myself of itsreality, as they say, to make contact with it. The mistake would beto see this mimic as merely expressive. Despite its multiple accidents,my thought makes its own way and doesn't seem to sufferoverly from betrayal, if betrayal it is. "Take it easy," she tells me."I won't keep you here." And so I allow myself to read the newspapers(and, I admit, very few books), to talk to strangers, toplay, sometimes even to laugh, to caress a woman, to be bored, toenter a public square: in short, to take outside of this thought myfew pleasures where I find them. As she is harder to subjugatethan I; she likes it when I tell her of the strange, daily fascinationthat these places, actions, things, this lowest common denominatorof men exert on me. What independence she enjoys! She is strong,too, like everything that will remain of me. She is darker thannight, and in vain do I try to occupy her with things that seem tooccur very far away, in her absence; with what I tell her is a successionof wonders, so that I'll be sure she's listening to me, likethe sad and beautiful queen she is:


"Wonders, Madam — but first let me describe this shipwreck foryou. Our vessel was carrying everything you can imagine as mostours, most precious. There was a plaster Virgin whose halo, toperfect the resemblance, was made of gossamer, so that it shonewith the dew. There was a completely white artificial fly that I hadstolen from a dead fisherman in a dream, yes, in a dream, and thatI spent hours watching float on the water I'd poured into a bluebowl: it was the bait I was saving for the unknown. There waswhat might come from the bowels of the earth, what might fallfrom the sky. Healing bushes, the scent of great hyacinths indifferentto the climate reached all the way to the bridge. We hadopened the heavy crates so as to see everything. We had also distributedmoral guises. The collar of grace was composed only oftwo pearls called breasts. There was genius, which wasn't only aguise but also a dazzling promise. A couple of birds, by far therarest, which changed shape with the winds, left the musicalinstruments far behind — even in this regard.

    "By what latitude did it seem to us that the land we were rushingtoward retreated the more we approached it, and that insteadof reaching it, we had broken the sea of glass? This, Madam, iswhat I could not tell you. The birds with their cursed song! Atthat point they flew away sadly, giving no solace. The antagonismof genius and grace, though it lasted but an instant, had beenenough to make the flowers virtual. The bridge was made of fallowearth and all that remained, on both sides of the vessel, in thetransparency of the waves, was the inverted image of the greathyacinths indifferent to the climate. The Virgin had lost her haloin the storm and the solitary white fly, extraordinarily phosphorescent,rocked in its night-blue bowl.

    "You will thank me, Madam, for sparing you the relation ofour cries of despair when we felt that we would miss everything,that at every step what might exist destroys what does exist, thatabsolute solitude gradually vaporizes what we touch. It is you,isn't it, who enter the colorless aviary; it's you who consigns thetides to this damning efflorescence.

    "The wonder, Madam, is that on the shore where you cast usup half-dead, we retain the awestruck memory of our disaster.There are no more living birds, no more real flowers. Every creatureharbors the disappointment of knowing itself to be unique.Even what is born of it does not belong to it and, moreover, isanything born of it? Does it know? The wonder, again, is that theengulfing of all that splendor should be a matter of time, let's sayalmost of age, and that one day we might discover a wreck on thesand where we know there was nothing the day before.

    "I bring you the most beautiful and perhaps only remnant ofmy shipwreck. In this chest that I deliver to you and for which Idon't have the key sleeps the disarming idea of presence andabsence in love."

* * *

Here the magnetic needle goes crazy. Everything that obstinatelyindicates the deserted north no longer knows which way to turnbefore the dawn. On the whole, the enigma of the sexes reconcilesthe wise and the insane. The sky falling on the heads of theGauls, the grass ruined by the hooves of the Huns' steeds — nothingfrom the slippery Thermopylae to the marvelous formula"After me, the Flood" can better lead us to the edge of ourprecipice. Museums at night, spacious and lit up like music halls,preserve the chaste and audacious nude from the great whirlwind.

I, a man, now watch that woman sleeping. We await the end ofthe world, of the external world, from one moment to the next.We are the ones who have braved the consequences from thestart, putting forth the fatal character of our minds. What shouldI care what they say about me, since I am not the one speaking, towhom I am speaking, and in whose interest we are speaking? Iforget, I speak about what I've already forgotten. I've systematicallyforgotten everything that ever happened to me, good or bad,if not indifferent. Only the indifferent is admirable. The terriblepsychological law of compensations, which I have never seen formulated— and by virtue of which apparently we will soon paydearly for a moment of lucidity, pleasure, or happiness; not tomention that our worst collapse, our greatest despair will gain usimmediate revenge, and that the regular alternation of these twostates, as in manic-depressive psychosis, presupposes a rigorouslyequal intensity of our good and evil emotions — the terriblepsychological law of compensations leaves indifference (in thebalance of the world, the only thing not subject to flaws) by thewayside. It is toward indifference that I have tried to exercise mymemory, toward fables without moral, neutral impressions,incomplete statistics ... And yet I, a man, now watch that womansleeping. A woman's sleep is an apotheosis. Do you see this redsheet bordered by a wide band of black lace? Strange bed!

    Is it my fault if women sleep beneath the stars, even as theyclaim to keep us near them in their luxurious bedchambers? Theyhold over us an incredible power of failure, and I am flattered toinclude myself in this. To include myself like a lake with mayflies.The lake must be charmed by the incomparable brevity oftheir lives, and I envy the changing perspectives of the womanfor whom the future is never the beyond; the woman who knitsher brow at my calculations, and who is sure that I will except herfrom the pillage, sure that she will be spared the exterminationI'm contemplating. She is not angry (on the contrary) at the feebleresistance to my desire for the unreal both by other men andby everything our love could easily do without.

    To love each other, even if only a few days remained; to loveeach other because we are the only ones left after that famousearthquake, and no one can ever free us because we are buriedunder too much rubble. Only this recourse remains: to love eachother. I have never imagined a more beautiful end to my life. Justthink, we would no longer have to make allowances. A few squareyards would suffice — oh! I know you won't agree with me, but ifonly you loved me! And besides, it's kind of what is happening tous. Paris collapsed yesterday; we are very low, very low, wherethere is hardly any room. We have no food or water — you whowere afraid of prison! Before long it will be over: yes, we wish wehad a weapon to use on the third or fourth day, but there you haveit! And yet, think about it, what can't be accomplished by a unionsuch as ours? You are mine for perhaps the first time. You willnever leave again; no longer will you have the choice of makingme miss you for a few hours, or even for a second. Don't bother,we're shut in on all sides, take my word for it.

    And to love each other as long as we can, because I, whoaccepted the augur of this formidable collapse, stopped wishingfor it quite so much the first time I saw you. Our next-to-last candleis fading; we won't light the other until our lives are almost atan end. It will be better, believe me. Come closer, closer still. Is ityou? How we desired this obliviousness to everything else! Doyou remember? You no longer wanted to dance. You wanted meto fill the time you were kept from me by writing to you, isn't thatso? Now we are delivered to ourselves for all eternity. Night isfalling. What, are you crying? I'm afraid you don't really love me.

* * *

Ghost stories, tales of horror, terrifying dreams, prophecies, Ileave you all. Rigid mathematicians, attracted by this blackboard(as I might have expected), have taken advantage of the woman'sdisappearance to pose the problem of my illusion:


"Given that the author of these pages, who is not quite twenty-nineyears old, has, from the 7th to the 10th of January 1925 (thepresent date), contradicted himself a hundred times on a crucialpoint, namely, the value that should be granted to reality — a valuesomewhere between o and [infinity] — we can wonder how much moredefinite he will be eleven years and forty days from now. In casethat reality is positive, say also for roughly how many persons hehas written this, knowing that poets have one-third as many readersas philosophers, and philosophers two hundred times fewerreaders than novelists."

* * *

Fine — I can see they respect my doubt, that they treat my sensitivitywith care. Still, what a horrible problem! Each day I live,each action I commit, each representation that occurs to me as iffrom nowhere, makes me feel like a fraud. By writing, I pass, likea smuggler at nightfall, all the instruments needed for the war Iwage against myself. Just see how I want to place all my bets onthe other side, and how my defeat is my own doing. Let's face it:whatever they might have written on the subject, two leaves fromthe same tree are rigorously alike; they're even the same leaf. Ihave only one word to say. If two drops of water can resembleeach other so closely, it means there's only one drop of water. Athread that repeats and crosses over itself makes silk. The staircaseI walk up never has more than one step. There is only one color:white. The vanished Great Wheel has only one spoke. From thereto the first and only ray of sunlight is but a single step.

    Where does that will to reduction lead, that terror of whatsomeone before me called the demon Plural? Many times peoplelooking at photographs of me have taken it into their heads to tellme, "It's you," or, "It isn't you." (Then who could it be? Whocould succeed me in the free exercise of my personality?) Thereare others who study my face, claiming to recognize me, to haveseen me somewhere, especially in places I've never been — whichis much worse. I remember one sinister joker who, one eveningnear Châtelet, stopped the passers-by along the quay — if theyweren't alone he roughly took one of them aside — and askedpoint-blank: "What is your name?" I suppose that almost everyonetold him their names. He thanked them tersely and walkedaway. In the small group that my friends and I formed, I wasn'tthe one he chose. I admire the courage of that man, who couldoffer himself such a show for free, the way I admire the courageof a few other famous practical jokers, able to act without witnessesat the expense of one or several individuals. All the same,how alone one must feel! I'm also thinking of poetry, which is apractical joke of another kind, perhaps the most serious kind.

    These days it displays such particular demands. See the importanceit attaches to the possible, and its love of the implausible.What is, what might be — how insufficient it finds all that! Nature,it denies your reign; things, what could it care about your properties?It knows no rest so long as it has not run its negativistic handover the entire universe. It's the eternal dare of Gérard de Nervalwalking a lobster on a leash near the Palais-Royal. Poetic abusesare not nearly over. The Doe with bronze hooves and goldenhorns, which I carry wounded on my shoulders to Paris orMycenae, transfigures the world as I pass. The changes occur soquickly that I hardly have time to notice. In 1918, on the ward inthe Val-de-Grâce that they euphemistically called the "QuatrièmeFiévreux" and that at the time was an entire poem in itself — in thatward where I had been assigned to keep watch — on some eveningsI saw a middle-aged gentleman of modest appearance inside hispadded cell, whose knife and laces they had taken the precautionof removing, whom they often forgot to feed, and who they frequentlymade sure had nothing on him but some ratty trousers, hishospital blouse, and the horrible blue coat with one red sleeve thatconstituted the uniform of the insane. Well, you won't believe me,but when we were alone that man, who had come to trust me,unfurled to my ever renewed surprise huge flags, including aGerman and a Russian flag, which he pulled from who knowswhere. One night he even sent two doves flying out before myeyes, and for our next meeting he promised me rabbits. I stoppedseeing him around that time, and to this day I regret not havingtried harder to find out who he was. I insist that this anecdote isstrictly true, and I hope it doesn't make me appear too suggestible.I can't escape the thought that this bizarre magician, who hardlyever spoke, was suffering from something other than an incomprehensiblelapse in surveillance.

Our own surveillance, as I've since noted, is no better. Poeticallyspeaking, our senses, with the just barely acceptable nature oftheir data, are a reference that can't satisfy us. Render thereforeunto Porphyry the things that are Porphyry's: "Do varieties andspecies exist in themselves or only in the mind? And in the firstcase, are they corporeal or incorporeal? In a word, do they existapart from tangible things or are they to be confused with them?"The record has been set straight once and for all: "I clearly see thehorse; but I do not see horseness."

    What remains are words, since the same dispute is still ongoing.Words are likely to group together by particular affinities,and as a result they constantly recreate the world on its old model.Everything happens as if a concrete reality existed outside of theindividual — what am I saying, as if this reality were immutable.On the level of pure and simple observation, if this is how weenvision it, we need an absolute certainty to advance somethingnew, something liable to clash with common sense. The famousE pur, si muove!, which Galileo muttered under his breath afterrecanting his doctrine, remains forever apropos. Does every manof today, eager to conform to the directions of his time, feel hecould describe the latest biological discoveries, for example, orthe theory of relativity?

    But I've already said that words, by the nature we grant them,deserve to play a far more decisive role. Nothing is gained bymodifying them since, just as they are, they respond so promptlyto our call. It's already enough for criticism to concern itself withthe laws presiding over their assembly. Doesn't the mediocrity ofour universe stem essentially from our powers of enunciation?Poetry, in its driest seasons, has often given us ample proof: whata riot of starry skies, precious stones, and dead leaves. ThankGod, a slow but certain reaction against all this has started buildingin people's minds. Things said and repeated are now runningup against a solid barrier. They are what bound us to that commonuniverse. It is through them that we acquired our taste for money,our restrictive fears, our love of the "fatherland," our horror ofour own destiny. I believe it isn't too late to reconsider that disappointment,inherent in the words that we have used so poorlyup to now. What should prevent me from mixing up the order ofwords, and so from violating the merely apparent existence ofthings! Language can and must be severed from its bondage. Nomore descriptions from nature, no more studies of mores.Silence, so that I may pass where no one has ever passed, silence!— After you, my beautiful language.


Excerpted from Break of Day by ANDRÉ BRETON. Copyright © 1970 by Editions Gallimard.
Translation copyright © 1999 Mark Polizzotti and Mary Ann Caws.Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Meet the Author

Mark Polizzotti is the editorial director of David R. Godine, Inc. He is the translator of numerous works and the author of Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton. Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at the Graduate School of the City University of New York and the author or editor of some forty-one books, most recently The Surrealist Look: An Erotics of Encounter.

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