Revolution of the Mind: The Life of Andre Bretonby Mark Polizzotti, André Breton
In the first full-length biography in English of Andre Breton, the founder and prime theorist of the French Surrealist movement, Mark Polizzotti reveals the intellectual, artistic and personal life of one of our century's most influential and charismatic cultural figures, a man whom Eugene Ionesco dubbed "one of the four or five great reformers of modern thought."… See more details below
In the first full-length biography in English of Andre Breton, the founder and prime theorist of the French Surrealist movement, Mark Polizzotti reveals the intellectual, artistic and personal life of one of our century's most influential and charismatic cultural figures, a man whom Eugene Ionesco dubbed "one of the four or five great reformers of modern thought." This definitive work traces Breton's artistic career, from his participation in the Paris Dada group in the 1920s, through his seminal experiments with automatic writings and "induced slumbers," to the development of Surrealism proper and the literary, aesthetic, social, and political successes and scandals of that most influential modernist movement. Polizzotti reconstructs Breton's intense and formative friendships with Man Ray, Duchamp, Dali, and Miro, among others; his legendary encounters with Trotsky, Freud, and Sartre; and his several marriages and love affairs.
- Da Capo Press
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THE "HAGGARD, SOMEWHAT HUNTED CHILD ..."
(February 1896-Spring 1913)
He had two birth dates. The chronological one, the one that appears on his birth certificate and other official documents, is February 19, 1896, The other, which he permanently adopted in 1934 (and which many of his commentators have perpetuated), is February 18 of the same year. The discrepancy is slight, but as with many aspects of Breton's biography, its importance has been magnified beyond normal proportions.
What lies behind so subtle a change? An attempt to cover biographical tracks? To "correct" existing data into something more compatible with a desired persona? Possibly both. Throughout his life Breton was extremely parsimonious with personal reminiscences, notably about his childhood; and if his writings are heavily--one might even say shamelessly--autobiographical, the incidents recounted are like so many case studies, at once open to clinical scrutiny and unyielding of much concrete information. Like good sleight of hand, they give the illusion of disclosure without the attendant intimacy.
In addition to this, Breton often evinced a will to improve upon the mundane aspects of life, to recast them into something larger and more resonant--even if, at times, it meant adjusting his curriculum vitae. He claimed that he had no use for the "empty moments" of his life, the instances of "depression or weakness" that would nonetheless visit him so regularly, preferring instead to accentuate the unusual or dramatic episodes, to project them beyond simple biography into something approaching universal truth. Initially, Breton's change of birth date might have been inspired by his first love, a cousin on his mother's side named Manon, whom he later credited with initiating him into the disturbing blend of "seduction and fear" that is sexuality. Manon was born on February 18, 1898, and it was soon after their brief liaison that Breton first officially gave his own birth date as February 18, on a medical school registration. But the definitive modification of the 1930s seems to have been determined by a more durable passion: astrology. Breton had developed a strong interest in astrology in the mid-1920S, seeing the discipline as another way to mine the hidden side of life for the thrilling coincidences it might reveal. In his own case, an astrological reading of February 18 (as opposed to the 19th) establishes various links" between himself and several of his most admired predecessors, notably poets Arthur Rimbaud and Gerard de Nerval and the utopian philosopher Charles Fourier. In opting for the 18th, Breton was placing himself from the outset in privileged company, the kind that he would seek throughout his life.
This dual birth date is only one facet of the larger mystery with which Breton covered his origins: one rarely finds an author so reluctant to discuss his early years. In part, this might have stemmed from the unhappy nature of the childhood itself, a way simply of avoiding unpleasant memories by erasing their existence. In part, too, it responded to Breton's modesty regarding "empty moments," which by his own definition included everything before his early adulthood: later, detailing his life for an interviewer, he chose to begin his narrative in 1913, his seventeenth year. Finally, as critic Victor Crastre pointed out, eliminating childhood means burying the part of oneself that is necessarily dependent. Breton's secret past, he said, "creates an aura of mystery, as well as of power: he seems to have come to us fully armed."
Few have made such literal use of Lautreamont's phrase "the unmentionable day of my birth." The irony is that the man who professed such an intolerance of the fictional genre should from early on place his own life in the realm of invention.
On the evening of Ash Wednesday, February 19, at ten o'clock in the evening, in the town of Tinchebray in Normandy, the former seamstress Marguerite-Marie-Eugenie Le Gougues, aged twenty-four and wife of Louis-Justin Breton, a twenty-nine-year-old policeman, gave birth to her only child. The following morning the boy was registered at the town hall and christened Andre Robert, after a maternal great-uncle who had mysteriously vanished on his wedding day.
Even more mysterious than the namesake's disappearance was the union of Marguerite and Louis, for the two were incompatible in nearly every respect. Louis Breton was a good-natured, apparently unambitious man whose one strong conviction was atheism. He was thin and relatively tall for his day, with the conventional demeanor of the petty bourgeois, his sober dress and well-trimmed goatee only slightly offset by a rather piercing gaze. Inclined to be self-effacing, he was sometimes forced by the stricter Marguerite to adopt a severely disciplinary position toward his son. This severity, however, was most often overcome by Louis's fundamental tolerance and his interest in Andre's activities, both in childhood and in later, more public times. Although Louis, a man of average intelligence, was mystified by Dada and Surrealism, he took a certain pride in his boy's fame and literary successes. For Breton's part, and despite his professed hatred of the family, he maintained generally affectionate relations with Louis throughout his life. The only true note of annoyance had to do with what he considered his father's obtuseness--as well as his willingness to defer to his wife in matters of discipline.
In contrast to her husband, Marguerite Breton tended to be cold and domineering, with a thickset body and a willful, unforgiving look--the same look that many would later ascribe to Breton in his moments of fury. She had outsized social aspirations for her modest household, and, also in contrast to Louis, she was deeply pious, if only out of convention. For Marguerite, the path to the Church and the path to social respectability were one, and she fought her husband's anti-clericalism by trying to infuse Breton with her own brand of religious respect. Breton, like most French children of his day, received first communion at age eleven. And like most, he suffered the obligatory commemorative photograph (kneeling, devoutly clutching his missal), in which only his slightly annoyed expression betrays his displeasure.
From the outset, there seems to have been little affection between the mother and her only son, who--no doubt in reaction to the absence of maternal warmth--quickly developed attitudes that sharply diverged from her own. Breton later flatly described his mother as "authoritarian, petty, spiteful, preoccupied with social integration and success," and to his own eight-month-old daughter he wrote: "For a long time I thought it was the gravest insanity to give life. In any case I held it against those who had given it to me." He also confided that, as a child, he found the dally sight of his flowered lace bedspread--Marguerite's handiwork during her pregnancy--unbearable. Although Breton maintained regular contact with both his parents, keeping up correspondence and returning virtually every summer throughout his adult life to visit them, there is no question that his relations with Marguerite were primarily marked by deep resentment.
Just how much resentment can be seen in an incident from the late 1940S, when Breton discovered Herve Bazin's novel Vipere au poing. In Bazin's story, the narrator's childhood is made hellish by his authoritarian, snobbish, falsely devout, excessively parsimonious mother, who dominates her bland husband and whose dislike of her son leads to frequent corporal and emotional abuse. According to one friend, Breton, reading Bazin's descriptions of the woman's "strident voice," her inventiveness with punishments and strictures, her social pretensions, her emotional distance and actual cruelty, cried out in surprise, "But that's her! That's my mother!" Another friend remembered him telling a group of intimates, fury still in his voice, that when he was a child Marguerite "made me stand before her so she could slap me, cold-bloodedly."
The conflict with Marguerite was never resolved; on the contrary, it spread throughout Breton's life, coloring his adult character and convictions. And perhaps more than anything, it left him a legacy of mistrust and anger that carried through to his adult relations with women. For if, as Freud posited, the primary love object is the mother, it is also the case that a loveless mother can become the primary object of hatred. Breton's life and writings attest, on the one hand, to a deep reverence, even idolization, of Woman as an ideal; and, on the other, to a bitter resentment that surfaced in moments of perceived sexual or emotional betrayal: the same betrayal that Marguerite, with her absence of warmth, had practiced against him from the "unmentionable" moment of his birth.
It is not certain what lay behind Marguerite's rejection of her son, but one clue might be provided by the unusually long interval between her marriage to Louis on September 2, 1893, and Andre's birth two and a half years later. It is possible that Marguerite, against the expectations of her time and milieu, simply wanted no part of motherhood, and had either grudgingly consented to her older husband's wishes or been the victim of a not uncommon accident; the couple, in any case, had no further offspring. But there is another, albeit less likely, possibility: that for her, Breton was the unsatisfactory surrogate for a firstborn who had died in infancy. Poet Charles Duits once recalled an evening in the 1950S when Breton spoke of "the phantom that hounded him. 'Robert, his name is Robert. I see this person every night. He's my brother, you know. My brother Robert. No, I never had a brother. But that's precisely why these dreams are so abominable . . .'" A buried family memory? More invention on Breton's part? It is impossible to tell, and we can only note that it was customary to name "replacement" children after their deceased siblings, and that Robert--a name that nowhere figures in Breton's ancestry--was given the boy as a middle name. Although Tinchebray is located in the Orne region of Normandy, Breton's family roots actually stretch eastward to the Vosges, near the German border, and westward to Brittany. Louis Breton, who represented the eastern side, was born on March 26, 1867, in Vincey, a small town in an area of the Vosges famous for its mineral waters, and Spent most of his childhood and youth in the nearby village of Ubexy. The son of a winemaker and an embroideress, he was one of four children, but only he and his sister, Lucie, reached adulthood. One brother, Jules, died at the age of seven; the other, Joseph, did not survive his eighth month. Despite Louis's apparent lack of professional and social ambition, it was nonetheless he who raised the Bretons from working class to petty bourgeoisie, for his background was populated by peasants and manual craftsmen, mainly cabinetmakers and thatchers. The young man moved west to Brittany shortly before his marriage, leaving the rest of the family behind.
The family of Marguerite Le Gougues, on the other hand, had long resided in Brittany, particularly the town of Lorient, where Marguerite herself was born on July 1, 1871; although Andres surname came from his father, it was due to his mother that the boy was Breton in ancestry as well. Like Louis's people, the Le Gougues clan was predominantly working class--weavers, tanners, more thatchers, and a few small businessmen. Apart from some schoolmarms, a Trappist monk, and two nuns (both on Louis's side, both defrocked and one apparently deranged), this is the combined families' professional profile. Unlike the Bretons, however, the Le Gougueses also boasted several sailors and naval employees. Breton later brought up this aspect of his mother's lineage to remark that, as a child, the one thing he knew he didn't want to do was join the navy. "And no one had ever spoken of making me a naval officer," he explained. "But I felt that I could never find an occupation that was sufficiently its opposite."
At the time of Breton's birth, Louis was employed as a ledger clerk in the local police force; although the post was strictly administrative, his profession figures on the birth certificate--and in many people's memories--as "gendarme." In reality, the law was more a matter of opportunity than of vocation for Louis, a way of supporting his young family. He had held several small business positions since the age of fourteen, when his father's death had left him head of the household. While this situation also exempted him from military service, he had volunteered for the army in March 1888, several days shy of his legal majority. Five years later, honorably discharged from the infantry and overqualified for his earlier civilian occupations, Sergeant Major Breton chose to put the accounting skills he'd learned in the army at the service of the local constabulary--at least for the time being. Then, in 1898, apparently without regret, he resigned from the gendarmerie. (Later, a standard joke about Breton had it that his famous authoritarianism was understandable: after all, he was the son of a cop. But the real kepi in the family was worn by Marguerite, not Louis. It was she, with her rigid moral attitudes and personal austerity, who imbued her son--even as he rejected her example--with the intransigence for which he became notorious.
Breton recalled his childhood (when he recalled it at all) as sad, lonely, and bleak. On the eve of his death, he still recognized in himself the "haggard, somewhat hunted child" he had once been. But while his formative years left in him an indelible rancor against his parents, and (at least on paper) against the notion of family in general, they were not entirely desolate. With the characteristic resilience of children, Breton carved out for himself moments of relative contentment, even wonder, if not actual joy.
Many of these moments were due to his maternal grandparents, with whom Andre lived for the third and fourth years of his life, Louis Breton having gone to Paris to clerk in a bookstore. His grandfather, Pierre Le Gougues, was an "old Breton, taciturn but a good storyteller, of whom [Breton] kept a loving memory." It was primarily his grandfather, retired since 1893 (he died in 1917, shortly before his eighty-first birthday), who raised the boy during these years, just as it was primarily his grandfather who gave him several lasting aspects of his character: his love of language and mystery; his interest in plants and insects; his fascination with forests. It was perhaps also Pierre Le Gougues who opened the door to a rare note of nostalgia in this reflection from 1924: "If [man] still retains a certain lucidity, all he can do is turn back toward his childhood, which, however his guides and mentors may have massacred it, still strikes him as somehow charming."
This nostalgia for childhood--or, rather, this quest for a childhood denied--would be a primary motivation behind Surrealism. Often in his writings, Breton celebrated those aspects of adult life that harked back to the marvels of the formative years: from Picasso's "tragic toys for adults" to Max Ernst's collages, reminiscent of a "child's first picture-book"; from Rimbaud's juvenile insolence to the marvelous fluidity of Lautreamont perceiving something that might be "a man or a stone or a tree." A number of Surrealism's activities--whether games, automatic writing, or political revolution--were on one level a way of trying to recapture (as Breton later put it) childhood's "absence of any known restrictions," to satisfy his and his friends' "hunger for the marvelous." In 1924, when first stating the principles of the newly formed Surrealist movement, he would specify:
Many of Breton's own early memories revolved around Pierre Le Gougues and the time spent in Brittany, either in Lorient itself or in the coastal town of Saint-Brieuc, where his grandfather sometimes took him. (Breton, in fact, spent very little time in Tinchebray--all to the good, as it was a small, drab whose main industry was the production of gardening tools and hardware.) When he was twenty-three, he fleetingly evoked some of these memories in hazy strokes, in his book The Magnetic Fields. Significantly, they are among the only childhood recollections Breton ever committed to paper; perhaps even more significantly, they occur in a work of automatic writing, deliberately composed without conscious control: "I leave the halls of Dolo with Grandfather very early in the morning. The kid would like a surprise. Those halfpenny cornets have not failed to have a great influence on my life." He also recalled "delightful fits of childish temper" and some routine childish rebelliousness: "A story was never able to send me to sleep and I can see a meaning in my fibs of those days, pretty sorb-trees in the forest. Ah! will the holidays last indefinitely and those games in the country where I am the boss?" There were, as well, a number of pleasurable terrors, especially brought by the Celtic legends and horror stories that his grandfather told him, filled with witches, death chariots, and Breton goblins.
But despite such moments, and the lighthearted tone of their evocation, Breton's general attitude toward his childhood was most accurately summed up in this reflection from The Magnetic Fields: "I believe I was very well brought up," which he later annotated: "may it be said with rancor and hatred.
In 1900, at the age of four, Breton left the forests of Brittany for Paris's industrial northern suburbs. Louis Breton settled with his family in the town of Pantin, where he had found employment as an accountant, a position he soon traded for that of assistant manager in a small glassworks. The family lived on Rue de Paris, in a smutty, unprepossessing neighborhood distinguished by its large perfume factory and extensive population of streetwalkers. If, as Breton wrote in 1930, "all his childhood memories [bound] him to the Breton moors," the memories of his youth were instead linked to "the most crepuscular of the Paris suburbs: Pantin, queen of smoke."
As there was no state nursery school in Pantin, the boy was enrolled in a religious institution, the Maison Sainte-Elisabeth, run by an order of nuns. Breton had been baptized at birth, in deference to convention and despite Louis's atheism; now, at Sainte-Elisabeth, he received the standard dose of Catholic indoctrination and, despite his later hatred of religion, earned first prizes in spelling and attention at the end of his first year. But although Marguerite's pietism was no doubt flattered by this state of affairs, Breton's contact with religion would never again be so harmonious.
In any case, Sainte-Elisabeth was no more than a way station. Perhaps as a symptom of the family's religious schism, Breton was transferred to the secular Pantin public school in 1902, as soon as he was old enough to attend, and would spend the next five years there. As in Brittany, the daily routine was tempered by small fragments of marvel: schoolboy composition books whose illustrated covers depicted scenes from history, legend, and world travel (Breton loved--and used--such composition books for the rest of his life); or the horror stories that both terrified and thrilled him and his "little six-year-old comrades," with which "a singular Auvergnat schoolmaster" with the colorful name of Tourtoulou sometimes regaled the class.
In public school, as at Sainte-Elisabeth, Breton won a goodly share of scholastic kudos. His August 1905 report lists him as having received the grand prize, seven first prizes (including those for civics, reading, history, science, and geography), second prizes in calculus and handicrafts, and third in drawing. More attractive from his point of view than the honors themselves were the books that were given in reward: primarily adventure stories for boys, whose illustrations provided a continual source of fascination.
In fact, studies and books were nearly all of Breton's life at this time. The tales of exotic adventure he avidly read were both a "magic lantern," projecting enticing mental landscapes of far-off Mexico and the American West, and an escape from the loveless home atmosphere created by his mother. In adolescence, this taste for adventure novels having been replaced by a more precious aestheticism, Breton still attributed his love of poetry and literature to its ability (as he said in one of his earliest poems) to "undermine the walls of the real that enclose us."
But the magic lantern was also a dark lantern: forbidden by Marguerite to waste his time with frivolous reading (she would enforce this interdiction well into her son's college years), Breton often had to wait for nighttime before indulging in his escapist pleasures. Nor was such reading the only thing his mother frowned upon. Concerned with maintaining an imagined social standing, she prevented young Andre from joining the neighborhood children as they played in the street. It might be a protection to imagine him staring out the window at his less fettered comrades, or burrowing further into his studies so as not to hear their shouts. But it is clear that, when in 1923 he designated the urban byways as his "true element," where he "could test like nowhere else the winds of possibility," on one level he was finally granting himself permission to play in that street--a street that, simply by virtue of its having been denied, became endowed in his mind with almost limitless opportunities. It is also clear that the loneliness of childhood helped determine Breton's adult need to surround himself with a group. As Philippe Soupault once remarked: "Andre Breton was a solitary man who could not live alone."
Interior and solitary, no playmates to speak of such is the portrait of Breton at age ten. Only during summer vacations was there escape from the stilling routine of home and school, when he returned to his mother's family in Lorient.
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