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An Unconventional Life of His Mind : A biography of Andre Breton in turn becomes a biography of a culture in turmoil : REVOLUTION OF THE MIND: The Life of Andre Breton, By Mark Polizzotti (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $35; 754 pp.)

August 27, 1995|Peter Gay | Peter Gay is Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale. "The Naked Heart," the fourth volume of his series "The Bourgeois Experience," is about to be published

For most Americans, the name Andre Breton, if they know it at all, stirs some uncertain if intriguing memories. Didn't he invent surrealism? Didn't he go in for automatic writing? Wasn't he a Communist for a while? Didn't he interview Freud? Mark Polizzotti answers all these questions--with "yes"--and dozens more in this exhaustive biography, a volume that tells everything anyone would want to know about Breton, perhaps more.

Yet, for all its devotion to the smallest detail, its patient tracing of Breton's life almost day by day, the book remains consistently absorbing. This is so in part because it clearly sets out the kind of gossip inseparable from so defiantly unconventional a life--Breton's sordid love affairs with unstable women, his emotional ventures into French radical politics, his dramatic oscillations between needy dependence and bossy authoritarianism--in part, too, because Polizzotti never loses the thread of his story. A few stylistic lapses apart, he writes convincingly and with insight. And he has done his homework: He has had access to unpublished materials and knows his way around the published materials.

What is more, Breton is simply an interesting man; while a far from admirable character, impulsive and self-centered, he met nearly everyone on the French literary scene and modern painters including De Chirico and Picasso and quarreled with most of them; his list of acquaintances reads like a Who's Who, mainly of the French Left, in the first half of the 20th Century, so that this biography becomes almost incidentally a collective biography of a culture in turmoil.

Andre Breton was born in 1896 in a small town in Normandy to a genial father, insistent only on a single topic, anti-clericalism, and to a severe, unloving mother whose main purpose seems to have been to terrorize her son and to make him respectable, an assignment in which she conspicuously failed. If Breton later idealized childhood, it was a childhood he never had. Unenthusiastically, he let himself be pushed into studying medicine--he would serve in World War I as a medical auxiliary--but soon found his vocation: He would be a poet. In his voracious reading and interminable debates with like-minded friends, he developed powerful enthusiasms, almost infatuations--for the French romantics Mallarme, Valery, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Lautreamont; French psychiatrists; Freud--who worked for him like substitute fathers to point the way to his lifelong search: the irrational sources of the mind as they erupt in his poetry and the raucous public happenings he organized.

Breton's grand quest derived its energy as much from his adversaries as from his allies: conventional literature, middle-class tastes, liberal icons like Anatole France were ideal targets for his unsurpassed gift for invective and noisy demonstrations. Except for a vague anarchist ideal of freedom and an unconquerable distaste for propriety, often expressed with explosive, obscene gestures, Breton and his little band had no program. Order was the enemy, order and the bourgeoisie. In his denunciations of the latter, Breton went far beyond the greatest French hater of the bourgeoisie, Gustave Flaubert, an ancestor whom he does not cite yet whom he resembles in his overpowering sense of revulsion at the spectacle of that much-maligned class, its hypocrisy and its piety.

It was in the midst of war, in 1916, that Breton discovered Dada, just launched in Zurich, and took important impulses from that tiny but articulated band. Disgusted with a rationalist culture that had caused an insane war, and endowed with a superb gift for publicity, it proudly and ominously announced, "Dada does not mean anything." The author of this slogan and leading spirit of this self-declared destructive movement, Tristan Tzara, became for a time, after he turned up in Paris, Breton's close associate.

The roots of surrealism in Dada's conscious absurdities and nonsense poems were plain, but several intervening experiments were needed before Breton was ready to proclaim surrealism as a full-fledged and self-conscious challenge to bourgeois civilization. One of these steps was automatic writing, which Breton and his closest friends practiced in 1919, jotting down free associations that abandoned any of the rational controls, any censorship of style, that was the indispensable tool of saner writers. Then came Breton's disillusionment with the Dadaists working in Paris, one of many, finally followed by his confident establishment of a group ready to follow him into new territory. The surrealist manifesto of 1924, written by Breton, stated its program and traced its lineage. Surrealism, as he defined it, is "Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express--verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner--the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from an aesthetic or moral concern."

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