Co-Conspirators E-anthology

by Perry Lindstrom

Interview with Mark Polizzotti
author of Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995

PL: Writing such a monumental book must have been a daunting task. Did you approach it chronologically, or did you just let your research take you where it went?

MP: Chronology did play a large role in my research for the book. I began by putting together a general, but fairly detailed, map of Breton's life, just to give myself an overview and get a sense of the chapter breakdowns. Then, as I read the various source materials over the following years, I would transcribe the relevant passages of each book or article, labeling each bit of information by date and merging into the rest of the material. By the end of the process (i.e. at the moment I stopped researching and started writing), I had several notebooks, totaling over 1,000 pages, giving a day-to-day calendar of Breton's life.
      It's not that I meant to follow chronology slavishly: though the biography is presented essentially in chronological form, my research constantly (and unavoidably) jumped from period to period and aspect to aspect. But what I found most useful about having this chronology to work from was that it yielded numerous links between events that I had never before suspected. It sounds obvious to say it, but to see that two supposedly disparate incidents happened within days or hours of each other is much different from having the same two incidents happen several months apart. And often this allowed me to intuit causal connections and motivations, which I could later verify, that wouldn't have been clear without the benefit of chronology. Sometimes even knowing whether something happened, say, on a Wednesday versus a Sunday shed an entirely different light on it. Needless to say, since Surrealist memoirs are notoriously unreliable about mundane details such as dates, I spent a huge amount of time verifying or correcting dates that were erroneously given fifty years ago and have been reproduced ever since.
      While all this seems like pure nitpicking, at least it's in keeping with the subject: as you know, Breton himself changed his birth date by one day because it better suited his self- image.

PL: Breton the man was obviously highly enigmatic, seemingly full of contradictions. Did you come away from this work respecting him more or less or the same?

MP: I can honestly say that I'm one of those rare biographers who actually seems to have come away respecting my subject more than when I began. I had always been fascinated by Breton, and had already gone through the classic love/hate dance with him (or his writings) before I began the project. My attitude at the outset was respect tempered by a certain skepticism - notably over those contradictions you mention. But what I ultimately realized was, first, that Breton as a flawed human being was much more interesting and complex than the Breton presented in either his autobiographical writings or those of his ex-colleagues; and second, that there was much more consistency in his quest (if not necessarily his methods or views) than I would have given him credit for. Breton made a number of mistakes, but underneath it all, to an extent I hadn't realized, he was trying to promote a level of overall human dignity and integrity that practically everything in his time (not to mention in ours!) seemed bent on stamping out. And at least he recognized many of his own contradictions: toward the end of his life, for example, he wryly commented to an interviewer that, although he was known as the great practitioner of automatic writing, he could never give a spontaneous interview, but rather insisted on writing out his answers beforehand.

PL: Breton's aesthetic instincts were extraordinary as evidenced by his early understanding and support for Les Damsielles D'Avignon, his discovery of the Rimbaud forgery, etc., yet he wanted to be taken more seriously in the political realm, Given his pronouncements on Stalin and the Soviet Union in general should he in hindsight be given more credit in this realm?

MP: Breton was never a great political thinker, as even his staunch supporters would have to admit. He was involved with the Communist International for about ten years, then with the Trotskyist 'opposition', and finally with the utopian Socialism of Charles Fourier. But much of this was based on a very hazy understanding of what Communism (for instance) was actually about, and most of Breton's overtures to the Party ended in grave disappointment. Nor did he ever propose any kind of political solution or platform. And some of his political pronouncements, especially at the outset, are frankly naïve.
      At the same time, he did have a certain lucidity about political ideologies that allowed him to see through much of the cant, and I believe he deserves credit for maintaining a level head at a time (especially in the 1930s) when many of his fellows were turning handsprings to justify the Party's actions come what may. For instance, he was one of the first to openly condemn the Moscow Trials in 1936, or to denounce the 'facistic' tendencies of the Stalinist regime (well before the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 gave the whole thing a sinister clarity). Once again, it is in his refusal of the political system - in favor of a human revolution 'by any means' - that Breton has valuable things to say about politics. The problem with such an approach is, it doesn't help much with the day-to-day workings of a viable society.
      The thing that constantly struck me is that Breton was first and foremost a writer. His initial interest in the Russian Revolution was through Trotsky's biography of Lenin, which he admired for its literary qualities above all else, and it was this that led him to look favorably on the political content of Trotsky'' arguments. Many of his later critiques of the French Communist Party revolved around the mediocrity of its literary tasted (as reflected in the Party newspaper L'Humanite, for instance). Breton was convinced that in order for a revolution to be successful, people had to change their ways of thinking, and that a receptiveness [to] the kinds of literature and art that the Surrealists were producing or recommending would be the first, indispensable step toward this change. The rest, such as strictly economic concerns, would naturally follow from this and could be addressed later - but therein, of course, lie the seeds of all future conflicts between Communists and Surrealists. PL: One apparent contradiction in his "revolutionary" philosophy is his desire on the one hand to influence social thinking, while at the same time being loathe to popular acceptance. Is there a way to reconcile this? Or is this just the common bane of the leftist intelligentsia.
      Not necessarily the bane of the leftist intelligentsia: many, such as Camus, Sartre, Nizan, Barbusse, et al., gained a fair amount of public acceptance. But Breton, though he claimed to want to reach the masses, wrote for a cultural level that was almost exclusively middle-class and up. (His few attempts at 'proletarian' writing sound half-hearted and unconvincing; and it's true that the kind of lifestyle the Surrealists championed was much less available to the working stiff than to the independently wealthy, or at least the independently bohemian.) Ideally, he felt, the masses could be made to leave behind their essentially petty-bourgeois tastes in art and be inducted into the superior joys of Rimbaud, Lautreamont, etc. - although whether he sincerely believed this would ever happen is questionable. I suspect Breton would answer your question by saying that he did not disdain public acceptance, only that he was unwilling to lower his sights to meet their current expectations. Actually, as many of his letters show, he was rather distressed by the poor sale and reception of his books - when writing to his publishers about it, he sounds just like any other dissatisfied author!

PL: Ironically, about the time of Breton's death, popular Western culture became "surreal". Which is to say we were beginning to see the emergence of what we call today postmodern culture. Baudelaire and Mallarme are often credited as being forerunners of the modern. Do you think that Breton can lay claim to being the father of the postmodern - even if he himself would have probably rejected such a label.

MP: I'm not sure I'd agree with the premise of this. Popular culture adopted many 'Surrealist' trappings in the 60s and 70s, but I wonder how much of the spirit had penetrated. Breton would probably have greeted the whole thing - as he had a similar 'Surrealist craze' in New York in the 1940s-with deep suspicion and a shrug of the shoulders. He might have been intrigued by some of the experiments in 'alternative lifestyles', but not surprised at their ultimate brevity. And have we really moved closer to 'changing life' and 'transforming the world' (Breton's two watchwords) than we were in his day? If anything, I suspect it's the reverse.
      As for postmodernism per se, my sense is that there's a more direct filiation with Dada (as opposed to Surrealism), or with such independents as Duchamp.

PL: Late in the book you use the Bloomian term "anxiety of influence." To what degree do you think Breton and others like Tzara were trying to avoid this anxiety by rejecting outright the literary cannon. Do you see it as being a psychologically convenient way of coping with Proust et. al.?

MP: I do think that Breton and some of his friends were trying to 'do away' with their literary predecessors (probably more than Tzara was). Almost from the outset, his works were produced in opposition to or rejection of the previous canons: in Breton's case, this mainly had to do with the Symbolists, whom he had admired as a teenager, and figures such as Maruice Barres, who had disappointed him by switching from anarchism to right- wind nationalism at the beginning of World War I. (It's no accident that one of Breton's first 'Dadaist' initiatives was the very non-Dada 'Trial of Maurice Barres'-about whom Tzara, on the other hand, didn't give a fig.) Once Surrealism was safely 'established' as a cultural entity, Breton could go back and praise certain attitudes of the Symbolists.
      The issue is complicated, however. Breton never entirely lost sight of certain predecessors, such as Lautreamont, Rimbaud (to a degree), Swift, Sade, and several lesser-known figures. In certain cases, such as with Rimbaud or Apollinaire (another strong early influence), he had to pass through a rejection phase before he could once more accept them; but they were never very far away, and references to them crop up repeatedly in his writings. Throughout his life, Breton stressed examples of 'Surrealism before the fact', as if to give his movement a pedigree rather than highlight its originality. And even Tzara had made sure to point out that 'Dada is not modern...'
      I think when I used the term 'anxiety of influence,' I was referring more specifically to some movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which were very conscious of their indebtedness to Surrealism and were trying to establish their own identities. But of course, this is not very different from the anxiety that Breton experienced as a young man (see his sarcastic interviews with Gide and Freud in The Lost Steps, for example).

PL: You worked with Aube Breton on the book. What was her reaction to its publication? And while we are on the topic of Aube, having read "Mad Love" I was quite moved by the last chapter. Did you ever discuss with her, her reaction upon reading it for the first time - it must have been a very powerful moment for her.

MP: Aube's reaction to the book was quite gratifying: 'I found it very interesting and faithful to reality' - as well as, I hope, to surreality.
      As for her reaction to 'Mad Love,' based on her comments and attitudes I would suspect she was rather moved by the concluding letter, but we never discussed it directly. I'm sorry we didn't: it's a good question.

(Copyright 1997 by Perry M. Lindstrom)

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Co-Conspirators E-anthology