“I call for the veritable occultation of surrealism,” declaimed André Breton in the Second Surrealist Manifesto in 1929. Five years after the Bureau of Surrealist Research opened to the public on 15 Rue de Grenelle in Paris with an appeal to “all those who have the means to contribute, in any fashion, to the creation of genuine surrealist archives to urgently come forward” Breton now insisted that “the approval of the public must be avoided like the plague.”
What explains this reversal? Although Tessel Baduin’s patchy book, reworked from a doctoral thesis, unfortunately never confronts the question directly, her study nonetheless contributes to advancing understanding of the esoteric influences on Breton and his circle.
Baduin opens on a “nasty scene” which erupted on the night of March 19, 1951 in the back room of the Cafe de la Place Blanche as Breton and his new, much younger group of followers argued over the fate of Michel Carrouges. A week earlier, Carrouges’s lecture “Le Surréalisme est-il mort?” (“Is Surrealism Dead?”) at the conservative Centre Catholique des Intellectuels Francais had been interrupted by Henri Pastoreau reading his own text À la niche les glapisseurs de Dieu before screaming “Merde à Dieu! Merde à Carrouges” on his way out the door.
Even though the operation had, apparently, been undertaken with the permission of Carrouges, the incident put a conflict on the table. A year earlier, Carrouges had published André Breton et les données fondamentales du surréalisme (André Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism), a book aiming to reconcile Surrealism with Catholic concepts of the fall of man and grace. Now the anti-clerical Pastoreau insisted on “the irreducible aversion to all kneeling being.” Pushed to choose a side, Breton felt compelled to rule that Carrouges had omitted from his fundamental concepts “revolutionary will” and atheism. Carrouges left the group, and Breton was forced to terminate his acquaintance with him.
What had connected them was a shared interest in esotericism. Although disputing Carrouges’ contention that “as one penetrates more and more profoundly into surrealism, one realizes that hermeticism is the cornerstone that inspires its basic concepts” Baduin identifies key vectors in Romanticism (“Surrealism is the prehensile tail of Romanticism,” Breton wrote in 1930) and the dynamic psychiatry Breton encountered as a medical interning at the Salpêtrière-la-Petie in Paris.
Romanticism brought Breton to esoteric motifs — Rimbaud’s “alchemy of the word” and the Swedenborgian idea of correspondences in Baudelaire — which he explored and deployed in his literary activities, while his early medical training provoked an interest in marginal psychology: trance states, hysteria, hypnosis, sonamnbulism, and a notion of the translucidity of the unconscious which in 1920 he and Philippe Soupault followed into the automatic writing of The Magnetic Fields. As medical historian Henri Ellenberger later put it, if Breton had stayed in medicine he would have become “the founder of a new trend of dynamic psychiatry.”
In The Magnetic Fields, Aragon would later claim, “Surrealism was invented. The thing itself. Not the word.” But for the constitution of the movement, it was the ritualistic “époque des sommeils” (“Period of Trances”) which looks decisive. A six month period of collective, initiatic auto-experimentation, the sequence started at 9pm September 25 1922, when Breton and his first wife Simone Kahn-Breton, along with Max Morise, René Crevel and Robert Desnos dimmed the lights in the living room of the Bretons’ apartment on 42 Rue Fontaine, and Crevel put himself into self-hypnosis through a technique he’d acquired from a medium named Madame D.
Eventually coming to feature Max Ernst, Paul Éluard and his wife Gala, Marcel Duchamp, Louis Aragon, Antoin Artaud, Soupault, Benjamin Péret, and Man Ray — the cenacle of the original Surrealist inner circle — Kahn-Breton described the mood as like “living simultaneously in the present the past and the future. After each session we’re so dazed and broken that we swear never to start-up again, and the next day all we can think about is putting ourselves back in that catastrophic atmosphere.” Culminating in a session in which “a part of the group went missing, only to be discovered by Breton in a side room in the process of trying to hang themselves on Crevel’s instigation” Baduin insightfully describes the psychological dynamics — how the incipient Surrealists first functioned theatrically as an audience for each other, before they turned into performers for the public.
The main value of Baduin’s book in a field which also includes the sui generis Sufism and Surrealism by the Syrian poet Adonis, and The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism by Patrick Lepetit consists in how it contextualizes Breton as a researcher, both theoretical and experimental, and as a representatives of a tradition older than the artistic avant-garde. Her work is never tendentious and her analysis is insightful, before eventually becoming repetitive. But the study that would clarify what Breton meant — in the sense of occultation as simultaneous betrayal or defeat and disappearance as a prelude to an ultimate and final triumph — still remains to be written.