Impact of Surrealism in European Literature

Left: The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch; Right: The Great Masturbator by Salvador Dali

The early 20th century beheld such a humongous upheaval of paramount events which were wombs for the germination of new but indispensable ideas about life and its aspects. As good as said, the surrealist tide began to propel the minds of men once the First World War finished wrecking its havoc. The prolonged era of tranquility and material advancement, during which Europeans had become attuned to celebrate science and civilization as irrefutably altruistic, they were attacked by the glaring bankruptcy of science and logic, of their faith and progress, of philosophy and literature which proved deficient in dissenting against the great massacre instead took to justify it. The gaping abyss which separated man’s capability to change the world through science and his utter insufficiency to alter himself, impressed the Surrealist adepts. There must exist, the surrealists were unfaltering about, forces behind the conventional layers of our mind or what we understand as reality; forces which control our mind and us. Surrealism attempts to uncurtain these forces for if they could be harnessed for man’s benefits.

From the offshoot of Dada’s nihilism and anti-art sentiment, did Surrealism emerge. Andre Breton, the French erudite essayist, poet, editor and a trenchant dialectician was hit by the idea of Surrealism when he had been relegated in working in a psychiatric hospital where he interviewed some deranged soldiers of World War I who produced bizarre images as if they had taken dictation from a genius while reason slept. He grew increasingly lured to the works of psychiatrics and this interest did not stem from the zeal of curing his patients but from the fascination of the fabrication of irrational creativity detached from the stringency of logic. With heavy paradoxes, the tide of Breton’s Manifestoes of Surrealism and its irrationalism has swept over the West in the twentieth century with resounding success. Its profound cry for the freedom from the restraints of logic, of bourgeois morality and taste, its attempt of remaking life by putting Freud upside down, that is, by calling for the liberation of the human unconscious, and its concomitant political revolution are everywhere finding their echoes in the rebels who are manning barricades for a freer, more meaningful life.

Surrealism is likely to occupy an impactful and considerable place in modern European Literature. One of the main ambitions of Surrealism was to open to literature the domain of dreams and even of insanity. The Surrealists respected in the dreams, what Reverdy called, “a freer and more uninhibited form of thought.” They revelled in its inconsistencies, in its capricious disregard of causality, in its bizarreness, in the vividness of images. They explored its symbolic secrets as revealing remnants of a primitive mentality only imperfectly repressed in the depths of the turbid layers of our minds. Dreams are no longer a privilege of sleep neither mild, idyllic reveries. The realm of dream is respected and its luxuriance of images faithfully transcribed, while it is also interpreted and analyzed by a mystic trained in physiology and psychology.

Through an apparently spontaneous chain of images, Surrealism thaws the crust of blunted perceptions and of deductive reasoning which separates us from our deepest life and from the remnants of childhood buried in our subconscious. It maps out whole archipelagoes long submerged in the sea of dulled habit. It plunges below our intellectual vision of the world and below our sensory data; it seems to “see into the life of things” and to forge new and closer links between ourselves and the so called inanimate objects.

To tap the unrefined power of the subconscious and reinvigorate the written word, Surrealists innovated myriad techniques. The first as well as the chief among them was Psychic Automatism. Narcotized with psychedelic drugs and plunged into a trance-like state, Surrealists produced art, whether it be literary or visual, without intercession or later revision and which had not been deadened by their rational intellect. The first major surrealist work which was created by automatic writing and which was entirely a new genre of poetry enlivened by the strength of the unconscious, was Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault’s ‘The Magnetic Fields’ (1920). A disjointed blend of prose and poetry with a dismissal from the conventions of subject and form, which separated Surrealism from Dada, ‘The Magnetic Fields’ did not earn wide acclaim.

Surrealistic novels pillorizes the crass materialism and the superficiality of France whose moments of transcendence are but brief breaks in a storm of spiritual and ideological malaise. The surrealist novels like Andre Breton’s ‘Nadja’ and Louis Aragon’s ‘Paris Peasant’ blurs the line separating fiction and non-fiction and is autobiographical in nature with characters who are irresistible embodiments of surrender to non-rationality, furnishing glimpses of reality thriving beyond our rational intellect.

Andre Breton

Surrealist poetry includes hundreds of aphorisms that freely combine subjects, webs juxtapositions and paradoxes and offers nonsensical literary wisdoms that exist outside the regulated conventions of both form and intention and which is beyond any rational or pragmatic application. Benjamin Peret’s surrealist poetry was an assault on the status quo while Robert Desnos’s ‘Rose Selavy’ was an unsettling poem written under hypnosis.

The false and existentially repressive social constructions of sexual and gender norms were overturned by the Surrealist poets. Surrealism rehabilitated women and love poetry in our midst. It would be naive to present the Surrealists as Platonic worshippers of spiritual beauty or as hypocritical enough to conceal eroticism behind romantic adoration. Joyace Mansour’s ‘Screams’ and ‘Torn apart’, and Andre Breton’s ‘Free Union’ are among the many which used surrealist principles to give women agency and validate them as sexual, intellectual and physical beings.

Though venturing on the verge of insanity and suicide, as is evident from a myrid Surrealist’s tendency of committing suicide or deranging or living in isolation, ironically surrealist literature does not wallow in pessimism. It never consents to despair, never delights in reviling man. It plunges into the abysses of man’s unconscious only in order to emerge with reasons for living more imaginatively, more authentically. It illuminates whatever maybe sordid or animal in us with the rays of poetry and of dreams. After opposing an inflexible ‘no’ to the insidious temptation to accept man’s fate as it is, it attempts to carry man far above his mediocre, rational self into an impetus dash of revolt. It asked man to think outside of and beyond the principle of contradiction, to break the shackles of logic, to bring out of opposite objects and contradictory concepts a deeper unity.

As Breton proclaimed, “ the poet of the future will surmount the depressing idea of an irreparable divorce between dream and action.” There, in my opinion, lies the deeper impact and significance of Surrealism. The movement has staged an ardent revolt against all literary conventions, and chiefly against realist and existentialist effete images and classical conventional rhetoric which encumber a great mass of nineteenth century literature. It has striven towards a literary language deprived of eloquence and of sumptuous draperies, , closely molded on reality or surreality. In this aspect, Surrealism is one of the most determined attempts of French literature; an attempt to pierce the screen of language and to render words so transparently lucid and pure as to lead objects and feelings meet us directly. Critics would define surrealism as the great obsession of the moderns: the creation of the literature that is non-literary.

To quote Andre Breton, “ Human Life may not be many for us the disappointment that it is, if we constantly felt ourselves capable of accomplishing acts above our strength. It seems that miracle itself can be within our reach.”

An amateur writer who is in a constant dilemma between accepting reality and drowning in her surrealistic reveries.