FIRST MANIFESTO OF SURREALISM 1924
BY[FOR] ANDRE BRETON
Such is the belief in life, in the most precarious aspects of life, by which is meant real life, that in the end belief is lost. Man, that inveterate dreamer, more and more discontented day by day with his fate, orbits with difficulty around the objects he has been led to make use of, those which indifference has handed him, or his own efforts, almost always his efforts, since he has consented to labour, at least he has not been averse to chancing his luck (what he calls his luck!). A vast modesty is now his lot: he knows what women he has had, what foolish affairs he has been involved in; riches or poverty are nothing to him, he remains in this respect a new-born babe, and as for the consent of his moral conscience, I admit that he does very well without it. If he retains any degree of lucidity, he can do no more than turn to his childhood, which ruined as it has been by his teachers’ pains, seems to him nonetheless full of charm. There, the absence of all familiar constraint, furnishes him with a perspective of several lives lived simultaneously; he becomes rooted in this illusion; he no longer wishes to know anything beyond the momentary and extreme facility of everything. Each morning, children set off without concern. Everything is near, the worst material circumstances are fine. The woods are black or white, one will never need to sleep again.
But it is true we would never dare venture so far, it is not merely a question of distance. Menace accumulates, one yields, one abandons a part of the terrain to be conquered. That same imagination that knows no limits, is never permitted to be exercised except according to arbitrary laws of utility; it is incapable of assuming this inferior role for long, and at about the age of twenty, prefers, in general, to abandon Man to his unilluminated destiny.
Let him try, later, now and then, to collect himself, having felt himself little by little losing all reason to live, incapable as he has become of rising to the heights of an exceptional situation such as love, and he will hardly succeed. That is because, from now on, he belongs body and soul to an imperious practical necessity, of which one must never lose sight. His gestures will lose all their expansiveness, his ideas all their grandeur. In what happens to him or might happen, he will perceive only what relates such events to a host of similar events, events in which he has not taken part, waste events. Rather, he will assess them with regard to some one of those events, more reassuring in its outcome than the rest. On no account, will he consider them as offering him salvation.
Dear imagination, what I love most about you, is your unforgiving nature.
The only mark of freedom is whatever still exalts me. I believe it right to maintain forever, our oldest human fanaticism. Indeed that reflects my sole legitimate aspiration. Amidst all the shame we are heir to, it is well to recognize that the widest freedom of spirit remains to us. It is up to us not to abuse it in any serious manner. To make a slave of the imagination, even though what is vulgarly called happiness is at stake, is to fail profoundly to do justice to one’s deepest self. Only imagination realises the possible in me, and it is enough to lift for a moment the dreadful proscription; enough also for me to abandon myself to it, without fear of error (as if one could be any more in error). Where does error begin, and security end for the spirit? Is not the possibility of error, for the spirit, rather a circumstance conducive to its well-being?
Madness remains, ‘the madness one locks away’ as has been so aptly said. That madness or another…Everyone knows, in fact, that the mad owe their incarceration to a number of legally reprehensible actions, and that were it not for those actions, their liberty (or what we see as their liberty) would not be at risk. They may be, in some measure, victims of their imagination, I am prepared to concede that, in the way that it induces them not to observe certain rules, without which the species feels threatened, which it pays us all to be aware of. But the profound indifference they show for the judgment we pass on them, and even the various punishments inflicted on them, allows us to suppose that they derive great solace from imagination, that they enjoy their delirium enough to endure the fact that it is only of value to themselves. And, indeed, hallucinations, illusions etc, are no slight source of pleasure. The most well-ordered sensuality partakes of it, and I know there are many evenings when I would gladly tame that pretty hand which in the last pages of Taine’s L’Intelligence, indulges in some curious misdeeds. The confidences of the mad, I could pass my whole life inspiring them. They are a scrupulously honest tribe, whose innocence has no peer but my own. Columbus ought to have taken madmen with him to discover America. And see how that folly has gained substance, and endured.
It is not the fear of foolishness that compels us to leave the banner of imagination furled.
The case against the realist position needs to be considered, after considering the materialist position. The latter, more poetic however than the former, admittedly implies on the part of a Man, a monstrous pride, but not a new and more complete degeneration. It should be seen, above all, as a welcome reaction against certain ridiculous spiritualist tendencies. Ultimately, it is not incompatible with a certain nobility of thought.
The realistic position, in contrast, inspired by positivism, from Thomas Aquinas to Anatole France, appears to me to be totally hostile to all intellectual and moral progress. It horrifies me, since it arises from mediocrity, hatred and dull conceit. It is what engenders all the ridiculous books, and insulting plays of our day. It feeds on newspaper articles, and holds back science and art, while applying itself to flattering the lowest tastes of its readers; clarity bordering on stupidity, the life lived by dogs. The activity of the best minds is affected by it, the law of the lowest common denominator imposes itself on them, in the end, as on the others. One amusing result of this state of things, in literature for example, is the vast quantity of novels. Each brings its little measure of ‘observation’. Feeling in need of a purge, Paul Valéry recently suggested the compilation of an anthology of as great a number as possible of opening passages from novels, hoping much from the ensuing bouts of insanity. The most famous of authors would be included. Such an idea reflects honour on Paul Valéry who, some time ago, on the subject of novels, assured me that, as far as he was concerned, he would continue to refrain from writing: The Marquise went out at five. But has he kept his word?
If the declarative style, pure and simple, of which the sentence just offered is an example, is almost the rule in novels, it is because, as one must recognise, the authors’ ambition is quite limited. The circumstantial, needlessly specific, nature of their respective writings, leads me to think they are amusing themselves at my expense. They spare me not a single one of their issues of characterisation: will he be fair-haired, what will he be called, will we encounter him in summer? So many questions, resolved once and for all, haphazardly; the only power of choice I am left with is to close the book, which I take care to do at about the first page. And the descriptions! Nothing can be compared to their vacuity; it is nothing but the superimposition of images from a catalogue, the author employs them more and more readily, he seizes the opportunity to slip me postcards, he tries to make me fall in step with him in public places:
‘The small room into which the young man was shown was decorated with yellow wallpaper: there were geraniums and muslin curtains in the windows; the setting sun cast a harsh light over all…There was nothing special about the chamber. The furniture, of yellow wood, was all quite old. A sofa with a tall curved back, an oval table opposite the sofa, a dressing table and mirror set against the overmantel, chairs against the walls, two or three etchings of little value, representing German girls holding birds in their hands – amounted to all the furniture.’ (Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment)
I am in no mood to admit, even for a moment, that the mind welcomes such motifs. It may be argued that this childish description has its place, and that at this point in the novel the author has his reasons for burdening me with it, but he is wasting his time since I avoid entering his room. The idleness, the fatigue of others does not interest me. I have too fragile a notion of life’s continuity to equate my moments of depression and weakness with my best. I prefer one to be silent, when one ceases to feel. Understand that I am not condemning lack of originality for its lack of originality. I simply say that I take no notice of the empty hours of life, and that it may be an unworthy action for any man to crystallise out those which seem so to him. Allow me to ignore that description of a room, along with a host of others.
Whoa, I’m into psychology, a subject about which I’ll take care not to jest.