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Review of Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism

Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism,by Andre Breton, translated and with an introduction by Mark Polizzotti, Paragon House.

Contradictions abound in this collection of interviews with surrealist guru Andre Breton. A dedicated Freudian, Breton nonetheless insisted on prewritten questions and answers for all of these interviews, many of which were first conducted by Andre Perinaud for French radio in 1950. Every question and answer here was taken from a script written in advance by Breton; no Freudian slips for this Freudian. Questions serve as little more than prompts or transitions for Breton's monologues--"In your view, what were the texts and activities that marked the principle stages of that period?" The mock joviality, the artificial give-and-take, and the annoying, self-written flattery give these interviews an otherworldly feel devoid of spontaneity, humor, and revelation. In addition, although he was dedicated to the "liberation of desire," Breton says virtually nothing about his own emotions; in fact, he rarely expresses an emotion. Also missing is anything about his childhood, his family background, and his several wives. The reader is constantly kept at arm's length.

Arranged chronologically from Breton's days in medical school until the late 1940s, these interviews do serve as the autobiography promised in the book's title, albeit an autobiography severely restricted in scope. Perhaps the severity and lack of humor reveal more about Breton's personality than was planned. Despite the obvious flaws in Breton the man, there is much here of value concerning the history of the surrealist movement, the artists and writers associated with that movement, and Breton's own career. The story of Breton truly is, because of the dictatorial nature of the movement he created, the story of surrealism as well.

We get a glimpse, for example, of how Breton was first inspired to explore the psychic realm. The massive destruction of the First World War, in which millions died because of their blind obedience to the state, moved Breton to reevaluate his own loyalties. "Under such conditions," he says of the war, "why should I devote even one iota of my time and ability to things not motivated by my own desire?" This inward turn and consequent rejection of the material world took Breton first to the mocking nihilism of Dada, and then to the interior explorations of his own surrealist movement, in which one's own desires are of the utmost importance.

But it is Breton's anecdotes about prominent people that are of the most interest, even when, or perhaps especially when, his vindictive side makes an appearance. No straying from the True Path of surrealism is too minor or too remote in time to attract Breton's scorn. Salvador Dali, for instance, is still referred to as "Avidas Dollars," although he had left the fold of the faithful some 20 years before these interviews took place. Louis Aragon's defection to Stalinism in the early 1930s is also replayed.

Even friends do not escape criticism. During the 1920s Breton worked as a librarian and consultant for art collector and philanthropist Jacque Doucet. In this capacity Breton not only made his living but was able to persuade Doucet to buy works by Picasso, De Chirico, Duchamp, Miro, and others. And yet Doucet was much like "Ubu, patron of the arts," according to the grateful Breton. Also covered here are Breton's visits with the exiled Leon Trotsky in Mexico. Here he displays a moment of civility for an important ally. "I've never known anyone less distant, more attentive to others' ways of thinking and feeling," he says of the founder of the Red Army. This, although Trotsky's "own understanding of artistic problems was average at best."

Anyone at all interested in surrealism, and willing to endure Breton's enormously authoritarian and judgmental personality, will find this book essential reading.

--Thomas Wiloch