March 30, 2003 | Op-ed

Mugged by Surreality

By Stephen Schwartz

FRANCE HAS ALWAYS BEEN a country with a divided soul: on one side, a record of humanistic Enlightenment philosophy and modern art unrivalled by any other nation; on the other side, a record of scandals such as the appeasement of the Nazis from the 1930s until the end of World War II. It was only a few years ago that historians revealed the unfortunate fact that before D-Day the “French Resistance” was almost entirely made up of Jews, Spanish Republican refugees who had fled across the Pyrenees at the end of the Spanish civil war, North African Arabs, Armenians, and other “un-French” elements.

But something French continues to claim us–in fact, ought to claim us, as I remembered at the end of last year, when French newspapers reported the impending auction of one of the great literary archives of modernism, the collection amassed by Andre Breton (1896-1966).

The surrealist wizard was an outstanding art critic as well as a classic prose writer, a major poet, and a perceptive commentator on more general intellectual history. Because of his commitment to the work of leading painters and sculptors, Breton's art collection ranged from Andre Derain to Man Ray and Joan Miro, from Giacometti to James Rosenquist, a Pop artist he admired. But he was also a connoisseur of the indigenous arts of the Pacific, especially New Guinea and its neighboring islands, as well as of the Hopi and other Pueblo Indians and the pre-Columbian cultures of Mexico. What's more, his personal friendships extended from the outstanding Parisian poets and artists of his time to such figures as Sigmund Freud and Leon Trotsky–all of whom presented him with signed books and manuscripts.

FOR THESE REASONS, his archive is considered extremely valuable–perhaps too valuable, for the French government rejected appeals that it endow a foundation to house it. Some in the media suggested the total collection (5,300 lots, which are likely to fill six catalogues) could fetch up to $40 million when it comes before the public at the CalmelsCohen auction house next month.

Within weeks of the news report, however, a variegated group of minor hangers-on had issued a “surrealist protest” in which they tried to make a scandal out of the sale. With the names of Susan Sontag and John Ashbery affixed alongside lesser lights, the signatories labeled the sale “the shame of the French government.” They demanded the authorities take action to preserve the “site” of the collection, an apartment on the Rue Fontaine in Paris where Breton lived most of his life.

Some sins of the surrealists and wannabe surrealists may be forgiven, but the sin of lacking a sense of irony is not among them. If there was ever an author who believed that an institutional commemoration, whether in the form of prize monies, a public archive, a museum, or a statue, should be considered a blot on his reputation, it was Breton. Generally derided as the authoritarian “pope” of the surrealists, avid to exclude dissidents from the movement's ranks, Breton may have been less than libertarian in private. But he was no seeker of state honors. He loved secret societies, and loathed official ones. For his latter-day mimics to demand official recognition for him is obtuse, to say the least.

Indeed, the often-maligned surrealists had quite a bit to say about the idea of “French grandeur” that we hear, once again, extolled by the likes of Chirac. Surrealism was, in many ways, a product of the profound disillusionment with French nationalism that emerged from the horror of World War I. Many of the surrealist writers had served on the front lines, and their works were suffused with something far beyond mere anti-militarism. They were disgusted with the way their country's leaders perverted public values and emotions to justify such massacres as the horror of Verdun, in 1916, when hundreds of thousands of soldiers were sacrificed for nothing other than prestige. Benjamin Peret wrote, in a classic expression of his generation's rage: Lend me your arm / to replace my leg / The rats ate it for me / at Verdun / at Verdun. A genius in prose, Aragon, concluded his “Treatise on Style” with the memorable line, “I defecate on the French army in its totality forever.”

OF COURSE, one might claim that such statements merely reinforced the French defeatism that caused the nation's collapse before the Nazis' advance in 1940 and finds a contemporary echo in the present French rhetoric about war with Iraq. And there is something to the claim. The surrealists, particularly in their early period, reveled in the defeatist idiom characteristic of the French Left after World War I. The French Left, while proclaiming social reform amid the global Depression, steadfastly refused to support military intervention against Germany. The Popular Front government of Leon Blum shed crocodile tears over the fate of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, massacred with the help of the German air force and Italian navy, but provided almost no military help for the Spanish Republic to organize its defense. They oohed and aahed over Picasso's painting “Guernica,” which was conceived as a protest against the Nazi terror bombing of the ancient Basque capital, but they would not release French warplanes that might have shot the German bombers out of the skies over Spain.

BUT THERE REMAINS the fact that Andre Breton idolized Trotsky, who founded the Red Army. Indeed, Breton served in the Second World War, as he had in the First, as a doctor in the army medical corps. The hatred of the surrealists seems consistently directed less against militarism than against French hypocrisy.

Thus in 1927, when the municipal officials of Charleville, the birthplace of Arthur Rimbaud, proposed to replace a bust of Rimbaud that had been melted down for artillery shells by the Germans, Breton and his comrades responded–in good surrealist fashion–by declaring, not that Rimbaud was unworthy of being honored by France, but that France was unworthy of honoring Rimbaud. The brilliant poet and philosopher Raymond Queneau collected the comments Rimbaud had actually made about his native town and French culture. “You should be happy not to live in Charleville,” Rimbaud wrote his friend Georges Izambard. “My native city is the stupidest of all the little provincial towns.” The surrealists described him as “a man who incarnates the highest conception of . . . the active defeatism that in wartime you put in front of the firing squad.” They noted Rimbaud's comment on the German occupation of the country, following the debacle of 1870: “The day before yesterday I went to see the Prussian [occupiers]. . . . It made me feel good all day.” The surrealists added, “France disgusted him. Her mind, her great men, her manners, her laws symbolized for him everything that was lowest and most insignificant in the world. . . . Everything that constituted your nasty little life revolted him; he spat it out.” The surrealist text concluded, from the pen of Queneau, “Hypocrisy extends its hideous hand over men.”

Rimbaud described himself as an “exile in his own country,” and soon fled France for Africa. Breton was also, to a considerable degree, an exile in his own country. He had been outstanding in his denunciation of Stalinism during the 1930s and defended Trotsky at a time when masses of French leftist intellectuals, including a few of his former surrealist associates, acclaimed as the epitome of socialist justice the death sentences delivered in the Moscow show trials.

COMING TO NEW YORK in 1941, Breton worked for the Voice of America, and upon returning to France at the end of the decade, he averred his support for the democratic forces in the Cold War. He was, in fact, something of a neoconservative avant la lettre–although one shouldn't push the comparison too far. Breton remained a utopian leftist who opposed French involvement in Vietnam and Algeria.

But considering that his most distinguished disciple, the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, ended up a defender of the Nicaraguan contras, I imagine Breton might have also had sharp comments on the refusal of his compatriots to support the liberation of Iraq. One might even say, in the surrealist manner, that the French are justified in their defeatism about their own wretched country; but they have no right to impose it on others. In revenge for his anti-Stalinism, his work was excluded from the French school curriculum by his Moscow-loving enemies after World War II, and he fell into an obscurity that lasted till his death (though the revolutionary ructions of the 1960s restored his stature). He seemed to anticipate that the collection he assembled would one day have to be broken up, and he accepted such a fate.

NEVERTHELESS, his apartment in the Rue Fontaine was an extraordinary place. In 1981 I visited that apartment, which was maintained unchanged by his widow, Elisa Breton, until she died in 2000, and his daughter, Aube Elleouet. It took some time to find, because it was not an apartment building and the entranceway was not prominent.

Until the year before, Madame Breton, then sixty-nine, had shared the apartment with a Czech exile, Maria Cerminova, known as Toyen–a creator of delicate, erotic paintings in a rather precious style. Toyen had begun in the circle of Franz Kafka and was the last active survivor of the surrealist elite of the 1930s and 1940s.

Breton's residence had more the feeling of a cave than a regular apartment: one big room with a little staircase leading to another big room. The rooms were filled with books–but not the walls. Books sat on tables, chairs, everywhere: piled atop one another, in many languages, on every conceivable topic. Breton lived in a lake of books, broken only by a bed and a dining space, downstairs. But there was a reason. The walls, where bookcases would normally stand, were covered by paintings, photographs, sketches, “found objects,” and “primitive” creations. At the head of the arch leading to the upper room Hopi katchina dolls were displayed, with elaborate, phallic tablets thrusting upward from their heads.

The most stunning items were the masks from New Guinea and the islands of the nearby Bismarck archipelago–authentic masterpieces, carefully chosen and cared for. The New York Times recently suggested that Breton's Oceanic pieces would fetch the highest prices at auction. I stood silent, gazing at the Pacific Islands art, then picked up a book, at random, from a table: Einstein's “Theory of Relativity.”

Madame Breton served me Irish tea and sweet flat cookies. She spoke quietly in a mix of English, Spanish, and French, while I stared at the paintings hanging around the big room. The rooms seemed high up, as if perched on a crag. Suddenly, Madame Breton handed me a pamphlet with a gray-green cover, a prose poem, “Alpha and Omega,” by Edvard Munch, dated 1909 and translated by Elisa Breton herself. It had been lovingly handset, printed, and bound by a young friend of hers.

“He gave me only ten copies,” she said, “for my friends. But you are my friend now, so here, take this one.”

Surprised, I thanked her for the gift and tried to figure out something to say. She went on, describing the young printer, who worked in a hospital to earn a living and to support his small press. “He has also done some poems of Osip Mandelstam,” she said.

The name of the greatest modern Russian poet, whose wife Nadezhda had died only two weeks before (her body stolen by the KGB to discourage demonstrations at her funeral), had an almost physical effect on me. “Yes,” she said. “He was a very great poet. The equal of Apollinaire, and of Andre.”

I was obsessed with Mandelstam in those years and had spent some time the week before searching out a complete edition of his poems in Russian. I had even gone to the famous Parisian Russian bookstore, the Dom Kniga, then owned by the Soviet government. I spoke of Mandelstam to nearly everyone I knew in Paris, carried away by his verse and his courage in the face of Stalinist repression. Never really political, always considered the prince of aesthetes and idol of decadent youth, Mandelstam died in the Gulag for the crime of a single poem against Stalin. Sadly, most of those I spoke to in Paris about Mandelstam were indifferent to him; there was so much talk there, of so many poets, in so many languages. To some “surrealists” Mandelstam was not inside the club, and was therefore of no interest (but the same could be said of Edvard Munch).

Madame Breton and I continued drinking Irish tea and speaking, in Breton's cave, of Mandelstam. The two poets had more in common than nobility of language. Breton had been the first French writer of note to denounce the infamous trials engineered by Stalin; Mandelstam had gone further to assert truth in the face of totalitarian lies. There was even a strange coincidence between the lives of Breton and Mandelstam, of the kind the surrealists would have loved, had it been less grim. Breton was famous for the time he slapped the Russian Stalinist writer Ilya Ehrenburg, on the streets of Paris in 1935, after Ehrenburg had described the surrealists as drug addicts and pederasts. Mandelstam, the year before, had similarly slapped the Stalinist author Alexei Tolstoy. Did Breton know of Mandelstam's act? Probably not, and Breton's slap lacked the genuinely suicidal quality of Mandelstam's, which marked the beginning of the end for the Russian genius.

Strangely, Madame Breton and I spoke little about Andre Breton himself. I was there for a visit, not an interview, and it seemed to me enough to be allowed to sit and absorb the atmosphere of the place.

After a couple of hours the afternoon light was gone, and stars could be seen through the window. The telephone rang, and that was the most surrealist thing of all, for rather than the normal sound, the phone set off a buzzer like a doorbell. Madame Breton picked up the receiver and spoke for a few minutes, and I realized other, older friends were expected. I thanked her for her time, and got up to leave. For the last few moments I looked at her smile. It was more than serene; it spoke of generosity and justice. “I never knew anyone with more open eyes than Andre,” she said. I could imagine how those eyes had found that smile. Outside, a light snow had begun falling.

I CANNOT BELIEVE any archive, foundation, or similar institution could preserve any of this; it was ineffable, and remains so. Nothing could be more surrealist than reality–and the reality is that the surrealist movement ended with Breton's death and cannot be perpetuated. Breton was like a goldminer. The ore he extracted survives, but time has passed, and with it, any claim of physical permanence has also vanished.

Still, I kept the little book Madame Breton gave me, and I plan to visit the auction house in Paris in the spring, notwithstanding France's latest disgrace. Some loves are immortal, even for a broken heart.

Stephen Schwartz is the author of “The Two Faces of Islam” and director of the Islam and Democracy Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.