I previously posted The Pope of Surrealism, Andre Breton’s poem Free Union which is just one of many outstanding Surrealist poems that he produced in his long career. The Spectral Attitudes is from 1926, two years after the publication of First Manifesto of Surrealism. I have chosen a particularly unnerving spectral image by the wonderful Toyen, (see At the Chateau La Coste and many other posts) one of the most militant and loyal followers of Breton, to accompany the text. Translation is by David Gascoyne, the English poet who saved Salvador Dali from suffocation at International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936.
The Spectral Attitudes
I attach no importance to life
I pin not the least of life’s butterflies to importance
I do not matter to life
But the branches of salt the white branches
All the shadow bubbles
And the sea-anemones
Come down and breathe within my thoughts
They come from tears that are not mine
From steps I do not take that are steps twice
And of which the sand remembers the flood-tide
The bars are in the cage
And the birds come down from far above to sing before these bars
A subterranean passage unites all perfumes
A woman pledged herself there one day
This woman became so bright that I could no longer see her
With these eyes which have seen my own self burning
I was then already as old as I am now
And I watched over myself and my thoughts like a night watchman in an immense factory keeping watch alone
The circus always enchants the same tramlines
The plaster figures have lost nothing of their expression
They who bit the smile’s fig
I know of a drapery in a forgotten town
If it pleased me to appear to you wrapped in this drapery
You would think that your end was approaching
At last the fountains would understand that you must not say Fountain
The wolves are clothed in mirrors of snow
I have a boat detached from all climates
I am dragged along by an ice-pack with teeth of flame
I cut and cleave the wood of this tree that will always be green
A musician is caught up in the strings of his instrument
The skull and crossbones of the time of any childhood story
Goes on board a ship that is as yet its own ghost only
Perhaps there is a hilt to this sword
But already there is a duel in this hilt
During the duel the combatants are unarmed
Death is the least offence
The future never comes
The curtains that have never been raised
Float to the windows of houses that are to be built
The beds made of lilies
Slide beneath the lamps of dew
There will come an evening
The nuggets of light become still underneath the blue moss
The hands that tie and untie the knots of love and of air
Keep all their transparency for those who have eyes to see
They see the palms of hands
The crowns in eyes
But the brazier of crown and palms
Can scarcely be lit in the deepest part of the forest
There where the stags bend their heads to examine the years
Nothing more than a feeble beating is heard
From which sound a thousand louder or softer sounds proceed
And the beating goes on and on
There are dresses that vibrate
And their vibration is in unison with the beating
When I wish to see the faces of those that wear them
A great fog rises from the ground
At the bottom of the steeples behind the most elegant reservoirs of life and of wealth
In the gorges which hide themselves between two mountains
On the sea at the hour when the sun cools down
Those who make signs to me are separated by stars
And yet the carriage overturned at full speed
Carries as far as my last hesitation
That awaits me down there in the town where the statues of bronze
and of stone have changed places with statues of wax Banyans banyans.
Full of startling and vivid imagery, Andre Breton’s 1931 poem Free Union is one of the finest examples of Surrealist poetry as well as a magnificent and powerful declaration of love. It was a major influence on the Beats, particularly Allen Ginsberg.
A free union is a romantic bond between two or more people without legal, civil or religious regulation.
My wife whose hair is a brush fire Whose thoughts are summer lightning Whose waist is an hourglass Whose waist is the waist of an otter caught in the teeth of a tiger Whose mouth is a bright cockade with the fragrance of a star of the first magnitude Whose teeth leave prints like the tracks of white mice over snow Whose tongue is made out of amber and polished glass Whose tongue is a stabbed wafer The tongue of a doll with eyes that open and shut Whose tongue is an incredible stone My wife whose eyelashes are strokes in the handwriting of a child Whose eyebrows are nests of swallows My wife whose temples are the slate of greenhouse roofs With steam on the windows My wife whose shoulders are champagne Are fountains that curl from the heads of dolphins over the ice My wife whose wrists are matches Whose fingers are raffles holding the ace of hearts Whose fingers are fresh cut hay My wife with the armpits of martens and beech fruit And Midsummer Night That are hedges of privet and resting places for sea snails Whose arms are of sea foam and a landlocked sea And a fusion of wheat and a mill Whose legs are spindles In the delicate movements of watches and despair My wife whose calves are sweet with the sap of elders Whose feet are carved initials Keyrings and the feet of steeplejacks My wife whose neck is fine milled barley Whose throat contains the Valley of God And encounters in the bed of the maelstrom My wife whose breasts are of night — And are undersea molehills And crucibles of rubies My wife whose breasts are haunted by the ghosts of dew-moistened roses Whose belly is a fan unfolded in the sunlight Is a giant talon My wife with the back of a bird in vertical flight With a back of quicksilver And bright lights My wife whose nape is of smooth worn stone and white chalk And of a glass slipped through the fingers of someone who has just drunk My wife with the thighs of a skiff That are lustrous and feathered like arrows Stemmed with the light tailbones of a white peacock And imperceptible balance My wife whose rump is sandstone and flax Whose rump is the back of a swan and the spring My wife with the sex of an iris A mine and a platypus With the sex of an alga and old-fashioned candles My wife with the sex of a mirror My wife with eyes full of tears With eyes that are purple armour and a magnetized needle With eyes of savannahs With eyes full of water to drink in prisons My wife with eyes that are forests forever under the axe My wife with eyes that are the equal of water and air and earth and fire
Quite by chance (regulars readers will know how highly I regard thar particular concept, after all a throw of the dice will never abolish chance) I came upon this beautiful work by Leon Ferrari, a photograph embossed in Braille with one of my favourite poems, Andre Breton’s magnificent Free Union (click link to view English translation). The photograph with the mirror reflecting is reminiscent of Man Ray ( Dreams of Desire 25 (Return to Reason), Brassai (Dreams of Desire 47 (Brassai) and the many photographers who engaged with Golden Age Surrealism: at once sensual, elusive and utterly mysterious.
Simone Kahn, pictured above with a Vanuatu figure was the first Mrs Breton (for details of Andre Breton second marriage see Dreams of Desire 16 (Jacqueline and Frida), was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Peru in 1897.
She married Andre in 1921 and was involved in the trance events that was instrumental in the formation of Surrealism. Andre Breton remarked that she was a living encyclopedia and was the only one of the Surrealists who had read Marx’s Das Kapital in full.
Their marriage which lasted ten years was rather turbulent, as although both believed in the idea of a Free Union, the reality was somewhat different and neither was immune from jealously. However after their divorce in 1931 and despite further marriages they continued to correspond for the next three decades.
Quite by accident (a happy accident, I hope) this site has been mainly concerned with Surrealism. There have been detours into Decadence, Symbolism and the Situationists and I have occasionally veered into original fiction, poetry and the esoteric; but on the whole Surrealism has always been hovering in the wings when it hasn’t been firmly centre-stage.
There is one name that recurs more than any other in my posts and yet not one post (until now) has been sorely concerned with Andre Breton. The authoritarian and charismatic Andre Bretonis inseparable from Surrealism. Surrealism as a movement was the creation of Breton and the terminus of ‘official’ Surrealism is always given as the time of his death in 1966. He laid down the theoretical premises of the movement in the First Surrealist Manifesto published in 1924, organised the publications, provocations and exhibitions that made Surrealism a truly international phenomenon; recruited and cultivated many bright artistic talents who, although they may have left or been expelled never really ceased being Surrealists. In the Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1930 he maintained the ideological purity of Surrealism by a mass purge of members who showed a lack of sufficient zeal for the cause, earning Breton the dubious honorific ‘The Pope of Surrealism’. It was Breton, and Breton alone, who determined whether a poem, painting or person was Surrealist.
A full biography of the eventful life of such a forceful personality, who was at the centre of the international avant-garde for over four decades is beyond the scope of a short post. Apart from the Manifestos he published the Surrealist novel Nadja, a collection of automatic writings The Magnetic Fields (with Phillippe Soupault), numerous volumes of poetry including the magnificent Free Union and the book of art criticism Surrealism and Painting. He owned galleries and was a dealer in art and artefacts as well as being a keen and discerning collector.
It is only fitting that I close with Breton’s definition of Surrealism from the First Manifesto. Whatever his personal faults and the ultimate failure of his vision, Breton never wavered in his commitment to the movement that he originated:
SURREALISM, noun. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express-verbally, by means of the written word or in any other manner-the actual function of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.