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Surrealism and the Occult

Surrealism and the Occult: Occultism and Western Esotericism in the Work and Movement of André Breton

Tessel M. Bauduin
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 278
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  • Book Info
    Surrealism and the Occult
    Book Description:

    This book offers a new perspective on a long-debated issue: the role of the occult in surrealism, in particular under the leadership of French writer André Breton. Based on thorough source analysis, this study details how our understanding of occultism and esotericism, as well as of their function in Bretonian surrealism, changed significantly over time from the early 1920s to the late 1950s.

    eISBN: 978-90-485-2302-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: The Occultation of Surrealism
    (pp. 9-34)

    Late in the summer of 1924 a small book was published in Paris. Although it garnered little attention at the time, thisManifesto of Surrealismheralded the existence of an avant-garde movement that would prove to be one of the most influential of the twentieth century.¹

    A tiny movement of dissident writers at the time, Surrealism would grow quickly and expansively into an international force to be reckoned with, counting painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers and performers as well as writers and poets among its ranks. In 1924, however, hardly anyone had heard of Surrealism outside of a small group of...

  2. 1. The Time of Slumbers: Psychic automatism and surrealist research
    (pp. 35-62)

    On the night of 25 September 1922, André Breton and his wife Simone Kahn (1897-1988) entertained young poets René Crevel (1900-1935), Max Morise (1900-1973) and Robert Desnos (1900-1945) at their house on 42, rue Fontaine, Paris. The party proceeded to conduct what appeared to be a séance: at 9 pm, the lights were dimmed and all sat around a table holding hands. After a while, Crevel, the instigator of the whole adventure, entered a trance-like state, uttering cries, words and sentences. A second attempt was made immediately: Desnos now entered a trance state, during which he too uttered some words...

  3. 2. The Period of Reason: Mediums and seers
    (pp. 63-100)

    One day in October 1926, André Breton was walking the streets of Paris. He encountered a woman:

    Suddenly, perhaps still ten feet away, I saw a young, poorly dressed woman walking towards me, she had noticed me too, or perhaps had been watching me for several moments. […] She was curiously made up, as though beginning with her eyes, she had not had time to finish, though the rims of her eyes were dark for a blonde, the rims only, and not the lids […] I had never seen such eyes. Without a moment’s hesitation, I spoke to this unknown...

  4. 3. The ‘Golden Age’ of the omnipotent mind
    (pp. 101-132)

    By the end of the 1920s, life was turning sour for Breton. Financially, amorously, but, most of all, socially. He was at odds with many of his (by now former) friends. TheSecond Manifesto(1929) is pungent, with an angry undertone, and many surrealists from the early days – Naville, Soupault, Desnos – were publicly excommunicated in it.¹ Some of those banished gathered around Georges Bataille and struck back at Breton with the pamphlet ‘Un Cadavre.’ The group Grand Jeu broke away for good.² During the early years of the 1930s, things did not look up. Political trouble was also...

  5. 4. Magic in exile
    (pp. 133-158)

    By the end of the 1930s, Surrealism was taking a distinct turn towards the occult. As this coincided for a large part with the addition of new members to the group, it stands to reason that there must be a relationship between these developments, but I can offer only circumstantial evidence and speculation. As argued earlier, the emphasis upon correspondences, myth and the magical worldview during the 1930s created the conditions for an alignment of Surrealism with occult thought. This may have attracted new artists to Surrealism who had been interested in occultism and/or esotericism anyway; alternatively, it may have...

  6. 5. Arcanum 1947: Poetry, liberty, love
    (pp. 159-190)

    Almost two years after the liberation of Paris, in May 1946, Breton came home to 42, Rue Fontaine. Immediately, he instigated renewed surrealist group sessions at the Café des Deux Magots. The addition of new blood was imperative as there were few first and second generation surrealists in Paris; Ernst, Tanguy, Dominguez and Matta, for instance, had remained in the US, Carrington and others had settled in Mexico, while Brauner travelled extensively and did not stay in Paris for long. During the war, Éluard, who had remained in France and joined the resistance, had become a committed Stalinist. Desnos had...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 191-194)

    Breton’s celebration of Flora Tristan does not make him an advocate of women’s rights. He celebrated Tristan as a heterodox socialist thinker who wrote poetically, even almost automatically on occasion, and who happened to be a woman. The case for occultism is the same. Mentioning Swedenborg’s or Paracelsus’ name does not make Breton a Swedenborgian, Paracelsian or an occultist. At most, it makes him a romantic, as it is invariably in that context that such luminaries are mentioned. Breton was not an occult adept and his movement was not a celebration of occultism. In my view, Breton was very adept...