Just as many other manifestos before, the Surrealist Manifesto proposed new ideals that were supposed to redesign the world. Written by André Breton on October 15, 1924, it was a culmination of the writings of the surrealist group and sought to free one’s mind from the past and from everyday reality to arrive at truths one has never known. The existence of a surrealist group was publically confirmed just a few days before, with the opening of a Bureau for Surrealist Research whose aim was to “gather all the information possible related to forms that might express the unconscious activity of the mind”. It sought to unite all those who were interested in the expression where thought is freed from any intellectual preoccupations, emphasizing the collective nature of the movement and bureau’s openness and inclusiveness.
At first associated with Dada, Breton became disillusioned by the apathy of the Dadaists, especially of Tzara, who he admired for a long time, and decided to quit the movement once and for all by publishing this new manifesto. A subject of much discussion in the weeks before its publication, the Surrealist Manifesto was published in a volume with Poisson Soluble by Simon Kra’s Éditions du Sagittaire, immediately taking on the significance of a global challenge for the intellectual public. What was intended as a preface to Poisson Soluble, it soon became an independent text, delineating the goals and challenges of Surrealism. It identified the whole surrealist idea as a movement, with an agenda, rather than just a style of art. Tribute to the imagination, dreams, and freedom, the manifesto announced good years ahead for the artists of the movement.
Achieving the Higher Reality
In the manifesto, Breton starts by defending the rights of the imagination, establishing a relation between the imagination and a taste for freedom. He critiques rationalism and the fetishism of logical procedures, which he perceived as in fact incapable of solving the authentic problems of existence. By demolishing the rational thought, Breton sought to overthrow the oppressive rules of modern society. He argues that one can learn to ascend to the perception of a higher reality, or more of the real, if one can manage to liberate one’s psyche from traditional education, the drudgery of work, and the dullness of what is only useful in modern bourgeois culture. To achieve this heightened consciousness that humanity should aspire, Breton proposes one should look to the example set by children, who have not yet learned to stifle their imaginations as most adults have, the poets, who are able to break down barriers of reason and create in a free, spontaneous, playful and imaginative way, and mad men, whose hallucinations and illusions are often sources of considerable pleasure and creativity. Only by unifying and reconciling the conscious and the unconscious, one can attain an absolute real – the surreality. He systematizes these strategies within the framework of Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the subconscious mind. Freud argued that a dream is part of a psychic activity and that the subconscious can reveal a lot, but also interfere a lot in our conscious actions, reinforcing the idea that thought, in humankind, had a much wider scope than the dominant tradition. Following this notion, Breton saw dreams as a free space of exploration, uninhibited by the same constraints as a waking life, and believed that the subconscious life constitutes a resource rich in visual and intellectual stimulation. In a revolutionary spirit of subversion, he presented Surrealism as a new means to transcendence, allowing for the unconscious and subconscious to manifest themselves in the work of art.
Several years later, Freud wrote: “Up to now I have been inclined to consider Surrealists, who seem to have chosen me as their patron saint, as incurable nut cases. This young Spaniard [Salvador Dalí], however, with his candid, fanatical eyes and unquestionable technical skills has made me reconsider my opinion.”
After emphasizing the importance of dreams and the subconscious, Breton went on to state his definition of Surrealism. As he writes, “Surrealism [is a] 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 though, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”  In this definition, we find the psychoanalysis concepts, so dear to Breton, the idea of automatic writing and writing of the unconscious, as well as that of moral and aesthetic freedom, all at once. Breton provides numerous examples of the applications of Surrealism to poetry and literature, making it clear that its basic tenets can also be applied to any circumstances of life, but also refers to numerous precursors of Surrealism that embodied the Surrealist spirit including Marquis de Sade, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Comte de Lautréamont, Raymond Roussel, and Dante, but also his contemporaries such as Philippe Soupault, Paul Éluard, Robert Desnos and Louis Aragon. Few artistic movements previously encompassed art in all its forms, and Breton invited artists from all backgrounds to join him and his colleagues.
Since he perceived the thought as narrowly enclosed within logic and reason, Breton declared a necessary war of independence on the limits reality was trying to impose on it. He revolted against the control imposed by reason and aesthetic moral concerns that only stifle authentic though and narrowly confine it. Thus, the mind that gives itself to Surrealism can relive the best moments of childhood where imagination dominates and enchants the real. If the thought managed to free itself from the censorship of the social reality, but found itself in disagreement with it, it should aspire to change it. This notion has provided the manifesto with a political dimension as well, yet, in the manifesto itself, any political dimension remained implicit.
The Impact of the Surrealist Manifesto
Containing purely theoretical passages and sentence fragments collages, the Surrealist manifesto is itself surrealistic. Written with a great deal of absurdist humor, it mingles autobiography, theoretical points of view, and references to the definite existence of a surrealist collective. Instead of announcing of the new school in the arts, it validated ambitions that have already existed with Breton and his close circle. While the text was recieved with mixed reviews – some saw it as nothing more than a useless and sterile restlessness or questioned the possibility of complete automatism – it positioned Breton as a single leader of the movement. Yet, renouncing the dominant tradition of rationalism and proposing a paradigm shift, the avant-garde nature of the text was indisputable, influencing generations of artists and movements to come.
The Surrealist Manifesto by André Breton, 1924
- Durozoi, G. History of the Surrealist Movement. University of Chicago Press, 2004
- Artaud, A. Surrealism in the light of the first manifesto of 1924. [December 17, 2016]
- Stern, F. Surrealism: The Alternate Reality. World & I 24, no. 1, 2009
- Breton, A. The Surrealist Manifesto. 1924
- Durozoi, G. Ibid.