All of This, My Dear Sir, Is Surrealism: On Mark Polizzotti’s “Why Surrealism Matters”

By Anna LevettMay 14, 2024

All of This, My Dear Sir, Is Surrealism: On Mark Polizzotti’s “Why Surrealism Matters”

Why Surrealism Matters by Mark Polizzotti

IN 1941, ANDRÉ BRETON—French poet and so-called “pope” of the avant-garde movement known as Surrealism—was fleeing Vichy France and landed in the French colony of Martinique, where, the story goes, he encountered a copy of the cultural journal Tropiques in Fort-de-France. Like a mysterious Surrealist “found object,” the magazine seemed to beckon him through the window of a variety store. Paging through Tropiques, he was shocked to discover the best French poetry he had read in years. He demanded to meet the editors, René Ménil and Aimé and Suzanne Césaire—writers, intellectuals, and leaders of the Négritude movement, which sought to celebrate and reclaim Black identity across the African diaspora in the face of racism and colonial oppression. Over the next few weeks, Breton and the Tropiques circle fell into a mutual infatuation, with Breton enthusiastically claiming the movement to be under the Surrealist umbrella. Although the circle associated with the dissident Martinican journal had not begun with the intent to be Surrealist, they embraced the designation and went on to publish many Surrealist poems and essays. Aimé Césaire later recounted, “Surrealism provided me with what I had been confusedly searching for. I have accepted it joyfully because in it I have found more of a confirmation than a revelation.”

Today, 100 years after Breton published the Manifesto of Surrealism with a small Parisian press, the question of who or what should be classified as “Surrealist” continues to resound. “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality,” wrote Breton in the Manifesto. As Mark Polizzotti points out in his wide-ranging and appealing new book, Why Surrealism Matters, Breton himself understood Surrealism to be “the codification of a state of mind that has manifested itself sporadically in every age and in every country.” Perhaps this is why the movement traveled so easily. In expanding the Surrealist purview to include these far-flung movements, Polizzotti follows on from a host of recent publications and art exhibitions that have sought to highlight the contributions of previously overlooked Surrealists, including Surrealism in Egypt: Art et Liberté 1938–1948 (2017) at Tate Liverpool; Fantastic Women at Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen (2020); and, most impressively, Surrealism Beyond Borders (2021–22) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which featured artworks produced in 45 countries over a period of almost 80 years.

In Why Surrealism Matters, part of Yale University Press’s Why X Matters Series, Polizzotti ranges across this complex history, seeking not so much to nail down once and for all what is Surrealist and what is not, but rather “to open a vista onto Surrealism’s major concepts and aims, […] to parse out what is living and what is dead.” Notably, the book aims to correct the “Francocentric” and “largely Western European, white, male narrative that has long dominated Surrealism studies.” This history has focused on Breton and his male peers, such as the writers Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, and Paul Éluard or the artists Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, neglecting the women involved with the French movement as well as Surrealism’s global manifestations. In contrast, Polizzotti wants to examine “why Surrealisms (plural) matter—non-Western Surrealisms, gender-fluid Surrealisms, racially diverse Surrealisms.”

But given the movement’s vast geography, how can we even define the term Surrealism? What holds these disparate concerns together? Polizzotti suggests that what distinguishes Surrealism from other avant-garde movements like Dada or Romanticism is that it is “less an aesthetic movement than a state of mind.” Breton called Surrealism an “activity.” Although the movement certainly produced works of art—literary, visual, cinematic, and otherwise—the Surrealists saw art “as a means rather than an end.” This explains the wide variation not only in form and medium but also in—to borrow an informal term—the “vibe” of Surrealist works. What is it that connects, for instance, Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup to Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks? How can we reconcile Paul Éluard’s exquisitely romantic love poetry with his frequent invocation of the Marquis de Sade, the 19th-century libertine perhaps most well known for the pornographic novel 120 Days of Sodom? And if we look beyond France, how can we bridge the gap between, for instance, the uncanny fairy tale of Remedios Varo’s The Juggler (1956) with the totem-like monsters of Wifredo Lam’s The Jungle (1943)? With respect to style, Polizzotti writes, the term Surrealist should be considered “at best a shorthand.”

Polizzotti argues that Surrealism’s objectives were moral, ethical, and political, rather than aesthetic. In one of Breton’s most famous statements, he simultaneously drew on Karl Marx and the 19th-century protomodernist Arthur Rimbaud to call for a revolution both material and mental: “‘Transform the world,’ Marx said; ‘change life,’ Rimbaud said. These two watchwords are but one for us.” To his credit, Polizzotti takes seriously the “seamless fusion of art, literature, ethics, identity, biography, politics, philosophy, attitude, and the overall business of living” at which the Surrealists aimed, while at the same time drawing out the contradictions and shortcomings that such an enterprise inevitably entailed. He articulates Surrealism’s aspirations—to recover “the lost capacity for marvels,” to elevate desire into “a revolutionary force”—while providing details and colorful anecdotes that serve both to illustrate and, sometimes, to undermine the movement’s lofty ideals.

Why Surrealism Matters is thus organized not by personality, chronology, or geography, but by a series of modes or “attitudes” that structure, in different ways, Surrealist “activity.” The book’s sections include, for instance, “Transformation: The Search for Marvels,” which outlines the movement’s desire to re-enchant modern life through means such as automatic writing, dreaming, and séances. “Appropriation: Love and Theft” describes the Surrealist fascination with and sometimes fetishization of non-Western cultures, as well as (in a slightly awkward combination) its penchant for appropriating advertising techniques into art. “Disruption: Free Radicals” delves into Surrealist political commitments, recounting the turbulent interactions between Breton’s circle and the Communist Left. While the book remains largely within the purview of Breton and his circle, this thematic structure enables Polizzotti to weave in examples from other Surrealist movements worldwide, such as the Césaires in Martinique or Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, leaders of a Chicago group that sprang up in the 1960s. He also gestures to Surrealist descendants in the present day, like Kerry James Marshall’s series EXQUISITE CORPSE: This Is Not the Game (2022) and the subreddit r/thomastheplankengine, which asks users to “[r]ecreate memes you’ve seen in your dreams.”

Polizzotti’s thesis is that Surrealism matters not only because the movement anticipated many of the progressive positions of our present moment, but also because its abiding faith in imaginative freedom and irrationality are tools that “we today might mobilize” in our efforts to envision a better and more just world. Polizzotti remains committed to this position even if, as he clearly acknowledges, the French Surrealists often fell short of their own ideals. The movement sought to align itself with anti-colonialism and with the people of the Global South, even as it practiced its own forms of Orientalism and exoticism, and even though, as Hal Foster writes, “colonialism was one of its conditions of possibility.” It sought to deploy “the subversive power of Eros” to challenge patriarchal norms, even as women involved in the movement were often relegated to the role of muse. For Polizzotti, these blind spots should not be ignored, but they should also not negate the movement’s broader significance.

The chapter titled “Transgression,” on Surrealist sexual politics, is instructive in this regard. Despite the Surrealists’ aspiration to “uninhibited eroticism,” Polizzotti writes, “their conception of [love] was still essentially monogamous, built on the notion of an exclusive heterosexual couple rather than on more freely defined unions.” Nonetheless, this did not prevent various figures from invoking Surrealist rhetoric to draw their own often more transgressive conclusions, even if core members, and particularly Breton, disagreed. The poets Raymond Queneau and Jacques Prévert defended homosexuality, the writer René Crevel wrote openly about his bisexuality, and the artist Claude Cahun adopted a “neutral” gender, creating “nongendered self-portraits in a variety of identities that anticipated the invented film stills of Cindy Sherman.” For women Surrealists, the movement could be at once liberating and constricting. Despite telling Polizzotti that it was just “another bullshit role for women,” the artist and writer Leonora Carrington elsewhere described her discovery of Surrealism as feeling “like a burning inside; you know how when something really touches you, it feels like burning.” It is these kinds of contradictions that seem to most interest Polizzotti. For all its instances of sexism and homophobia, he insists that the Surrealist aspiration to liberate Eros nevertheless helped “pave the way for today’s heightened awareness of gender issues and more open sexual politics.”

As someone who has spent “more than forty years” thinking about Surrealism, Polizzotti is an enthusiastic and effective ambassador for the movement. He has written a biography of Breton, and has served as both editor and translator of multiple Surrealist or Surrealist-adjacent collections. He describes how, upon his first encounters with Surrealism as a teenager, he felt “ushered […] into a world that seemed absolutely and inexplicably right, like the confirmation of something never seen but always known.” In this sense, Polizzotti’s own encounter with Surrealism echoes Aimé Césaire’s, who saw it as a “confirmation rather than a revelation.”

Yet while Why Surrealism Matters engages with Surrealism beyond its traditional protagonists, the story Polizzotti tells is still largely structured around the Paris group and particularly around Breton. While we hear about figures like the Césaires, Carrington, Cahun, and the Rosemonts, their stories are largely recounted in relation to Breton’s circle. This makes sense to a certain degree; as Polizzotti writes, to understand the “variants” of Surrealism, “we must first understand where they come from.” Yet there are other ways to understand Surrealist history than through the model of “heredity and influence,” as the curators Stephanie D’Alessandro and Matthew Gale write in the catalog for Surrealism Beyond Borders.

Breton’s encounter with the Césaires in Martinique is instructive for imagining different ways to tell the tale. By all accounts, both Breton and the Césaires saw their meeting as mutually fruitful, but scholars have perhaps overemphasized the degree to which Breton influenced the direction of Tropiques. It is easy to see why. It was Breton, after all, that in his act of naming transformed Tropiques into a Surrealist enterprise, and Polizzotti writes that Surrealism, as a result, became “a primary influence on the Négritude movement.” But what if we consider the influence in the opposite direction? Franklin Rosemont writes in Black, Brown, and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora (2009): “As Tropiques became more surrealist, surrealism in effect became more black.” In the essay “1943: Surrealism and Us,” Suzanne Césaire writes warmly of Breton but also invokes a Surrealism that surpasses and perhaps even precedes Breton’s vision: “Millions of Black hands, across the raging clouds of world war, will spread terror everywhere. Roused from a long benumbing torpor, this most deprived of all people will rise up, upon plains of ashes. Our surrealism will then supply them the leaven from their very depths.”

What would it mean to tell the story of Surrealism without centering André Breton? Perhaps we could begin by taking seriously Breton’s notion of Surrealism as “a state of mind that has manifested itself sporadically in every age and in every country.” Many writers of color have described similar experiences as Aimé Césaire when he recounted seeing Surrealism as “a confirmation rather than a revelation.” The Francophone poet Habib Tengour, for example, has described encountering Surrealist poetry in high school in France and being suddenly transported to the Sufi love poems of his youth, growing up in rural Algeria. The African American poet Ted Joans recognized something “strangely familiar” in the pages of the French Surrealist periodical Minotaure, which he discovered among reading materials that his aunt brought home from her white employers in Cairo, Illinois. Both writers, like Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, found something liberating in Surrealism, but also something that they already seemed to know.

As Polizzotti writes, the Surrealists aspired to no less than “universal emancipation, within everyone’s reach.” To meet this challenge, we are obliged to rethink our historical narratives.

What if Surrealism—or surrealism, with a small “s”—didn’t begin in Europe at all? What if this “state of mind,” as Breton calls it, is a universal impulse, a spark, an underground current present everywhere, just waiting to be tapped? As the Egyptian surrealist artist Kamel el-Telmisany wrote, when faced with the accusation that his movement was merely imitating the Europeans: “Have you seen, my dear sir, the mūlid sugar dolls with their four-fingered hands? Have you seen the small Qaragoz rag puppets? Have you listened to the stories of Umm al-Shuʿur and clever Hasan and other such folk fables of our local popular culture? All of this, my dear sir, is surrealism.”

LARB Contributor

Anna Levett is a scholar of Arabic and French literature and film, and a professor at Oberlin College.

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