Jonathan P. Eburne
The surrealist movement was – and remains – resolutely dialectical. In the classical sense of the term, denoting the pursuit of truth through disagreement, surrealist dialectics encompass the argumentative basis of the group’s activities from the early 1920s onward: it points to the meetings, inquiries, investigations, debates, ruptures, and exclusions that characterize surrealism’s aesthetic and political pursuits alike. Such contentiousness extends throughout the movement’s history, from the group’s inaugural rupture with Parisian Dada through its restless engagement with leftist politics; its polemical interactions with Maurice Barrès, Georges Bataille, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other intellectual contemporaries; its militant anti-nationalism and anti-colonialism, and of course, its numerous exclusions. Though contentious, such relations are constitutive of surrealism’s collective project, generating some of its most profound contributions to the intellectual and political life of the twentieth century. Rather than considering such disquiet as extraneous to surrealist activity, it is worth considering the degree to which surrealism’s history is grounded in a dialectal movement of its own, inviting the very disagreements that might even tear it apart. Far from denoting the rhetorical excesses of a fractious band of poets and artists – or the consequences of André Breton’s authoritarian grip – surrealist dialectics characterize the movement’s procedural, as well as ethical, imperatives.
The surrealist movement famously refused to limit its activities to the sphere of art. The question of whether or not surrealism designated a philosophy – the subject of a 1956 ‘debate’ published in Le Surréalisme, même
(Legrand and Patri 1956: 140–4) – only begins to address the extent to which the surrealist group left its impression on twentieth-century philosophy. From the movement’s inception, the surrealists thought seriously about the dialectical procedures characterizing their collective work and, increasingly, made this a central philosophical and methodological concern. In the aftermath of the First World War,
these young Parisian poets turned defiantly to German Romanticism as a double-edged rejoinder to a post-war French intellectual climate dominated by nationalism and positivism wherein, broadly speaking, scholars delimited and codified the rational basis for knowledge as deriving from sensory experience – and, implicitly, from experience on French soil.1
Breton derides this empirical restriction in a famous passage from the 1924 surrealist Manifesto
The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience. Logical ends, on the contrary, escape us. It is pointless to add that experience itself has found itself increasingly circumscribed. It paces back and forth in a cage from which it is more and more difficult to make it emerge. It too leans for support on what is most immediately expedient, and it is protected by the sentinels of common sense. Under the pretense of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices.
(Breton 1969: 10)
From Dada onward, the surrealists’ recourse to German Romantic poetry and idealist philosophy – including Novalis, Achim von Arnim, and Hegel, as well as, more belatedly, Marx and Engels – could be considered first as a provocation, a counter-nationalist appeal to the literary inheritance of the vanquished enemy. The real appeal of Romanticism had more to do, however, with the generative powers of the imagination it celebrated, as well as with its insistence that truth could emerge from evidence beyond immediate sensory experience. Surrealism could, in this sense, be considered the tail end of Romanticism – but it was, as Breton put it in 1938, a prehensile tail (Breton 1969: 153).
The full methodological significance of the surrealist recourse to German idealism emerged during the mid-1920s, when the group, with other leftist intellectuals in Paris, sought to formalize their growing political convictions and launched a series of systematic discussions about Marxian dialectical materialism and Communist Party affiliation. The surrealist movement would not only exercise its own characteristic dialecticism – the 1925–29 period was one of the most turbulent, as well as the most intellectually animated, phases in its history – but would also contribute substantively to the resurgence of dialectical thinking in France, as well as to its transformation as a conceptual framework. As intellectual historians have begun to examine, surrealism was at the
forefront of the French philosophical ‘return to Hegel’ of the 1920s and 1930s. The influential public lectures of Alexandre Kojève on the master–slave dialectic presented at the École Pratique des Hautes Études during 1933–39, have often been cited as the formative event in the French philosophical reception of Hegel and dialectical reasoning, influencing an entire generation of intellectuals that included attendees Georges Bataille, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Lacan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and André Breton.2
The modern French reception of Hegel begins earlier, however. Even as Kojève and his colleagues at the École Pratique des Hautes Études were beginning to reconsider Hegelian philosophy, and particularly the Phenomenology of Spirit
, in light of contemporary pragmatism (James, Whitehead) and phenomenology (Husserl, Heidegger), the surrealists were also approaching the Hegelian dialectic as a key philosophical concern within their own thinking about knowledge, consciousness, materialism, and the determining forces in world history. The surrealist group’s recourse to Hegel – especially in the work of Breton, Louis Aragon, and René Crevel in the early decades of the movement – did as much to transform the contemporary understanding of dialectical thinking as that of Kojève and his colleagues, including Jean Wahl, Alexandre Koyré, and the philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard – the work of the latter would be especially contiguous with surrealism in the 1930s. This doesn’t mean that the surrealist attention to Hegel was grounded in systematic study, however. Though Breton certainly studied Hegel’s Aesthetics
in 1931 and 1932, and though others in the movement would address surrealism’s Hegelianism directly in the 1950s, the movement’s general contribution to ‘the French Hegel’ and dialectical thought in the twentieth century had as much to do with the group’s oblique – indeed, dialectical – approach to German philosophy.
Earlier French philosophers had evaluated Hegel on account of his idealism, a philosophical system that subsumed the violent tribulations of historical change within the panlogism of a transcendental consciousness or Geist
. By contrast, the surrealists and their philosophical contemporaries radically recast Hegel’s system, privileging the dynamism (and incompleteness) of dialectical movement rather than the abstract totality of Spirit. This meant that dialectical negation operated as something other than a logical formula or a world-historical pattern; rather, it described the dynamic functioning of consciousness in its relationship to the world. Consistent, in many ways, with Jean Wahl’s influential 1929 study Le malheur de la conscience dans la philosophie de Hegel
(The unhappy consciousness in Hegel’s philosophy), the surrealists understood the work of consciousness as intrinsically restless,
incomplete, and self-contradicting. This restlessness was exacerbated, moreover, by the work of the unconscious: because the mind is not fully present to itself, the work of thought was itself dialectical, to the extent that the mind, as René Crevel insisted in 1927, could work against
reason (Crevel 1986). This restlessness was productive, of course: both poetic creation and historical change comprised dynamic processes that came about through negation. The unfolding of the human world over time, like the unfolding of thought, takes place according to a process through which closed, knowable entities (an object, the self, a nation) become divided and oppose themselves, negating their former, limited, totality. In traditional dialectics, this divided, antithetical condition could be surmounted in turn by various forms of Aufhebung
or synthesis, a provisional ‘negation of the negation’ that yields a new arrangement in turn. For the surrealists, however, the poetic or worldly ‘productiveness’ of dialectical negation consisted in this very restlessness itself: art and revolution were not the utopian fruit of dialectical synthesis, but the concrete forms of persistent negation, at once the result and the medium for what Breton called a necessary crise de conscience
(crisis in understanding) (Breton 1988: 781).3
In his 1929 Second Manifesto
, Breton outlines a naturalistic version of the surrealist dialectic in terms that explicitly register its distance from Hegel. Citing Friedrich Engels’ critique of Hegelian panlogism in Anti-Dühring
(1877), Breton portrays surrealism – along with Marxian dialectical materialism – as extending from the ‘avortement colossal’ (colossal abortion) of the Hegelian system. As Breton writes, ‘Surrealism, although a special part of its function is to examine with a critical eye the notions of reality and unreality, reason and irrationality, reflection and impulse, knowledge and “fatal” ignorance, usefulness and uselessness, is analogous at least in one respect with historical materialism in that it too tends to take as its point of departure the “colossal abortion” of the Hegelian system. It seems impossible to me to assign any limitations – economic limitations, for instance – to the exercise of a thought finally made tractable to negation, and to the negation of negation’ (Breton 1988: 140).4
While agreeing with Engels’ rejection of Hegelian panlogism, Breton doesn’t simply present Hegelianism as a failure, but instead casts surrealism and dialectical materialism as the twin offspring of this failure: the avortement
is itself a negation of Hegelian systematics. As a result, Breton argues that surrealist dialectic was bound neither by the totalizing framework of Hegel’s system nor by the socio-economic rhetoric of party communism. ‘How’, Breton asks, ‘can one accept the fact that the dialectical method can only be validly applied to the solution of social problems?’ (Breton 1969: 140). The aim of surrealism
was instead to engage dialecticism in a movement ‘toward the concrete’, as Wahl would later put it: to furnish dialecticism ‘with practical possibilities in no way competitive in the most immediate realm of consciousness’ (see Wahl 1932; Breton 1969: 140). Breton substantiates his position by continuing to paraphrase Engels. In the Second Manifesto
, he goes so far as to abandon the ‘dialectical method, in its Hegelian form’, in favour of Engels’ defence of the dialectic as an organic (rather than metaphysical) principle of change requiring no external, transcendental, force of causation. For Breton, as for Engels, dialectic is far more than an epistemological function or interpretation of the ‘rifts and disorders’ of Western (and capitalist) nations; rather, the dialectic describes a principle of change that extends to concrete, worldly action as an extension of its knowledge and praxis.
Even beyond its rejection of Hegelian systematics, Breton’s understanding of the dialectic is peculiar, progressing less through contradiction and synthesis than through a proliferation of rencontres, that is, of meetings or encounters that staged negation as a constitutive event in its own right. For Breton, that is, the so-called ‘negation’ in dialectics signified a transformation that was already an affirmation (if not an Aufhebung) in itself: there is no self/other, master/slave hierarchy; there is only the process itself though which ‘life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions’ (Breton 1969: 123). Bruce Baugh has described this ‘unlimited negation’ as an animating concern of the surrealist movement, a creative project that levied the work of negation toward ‘destroying the antinomies and contradictions which the Surrealists say was the source of human unhappiness’. As Baugh puts it, the surrealists wanted Hegel’s method, but not his metaphysics (Baugh 2003: 58 and 55).
To a large extent, the surrealist group’s early understanding of the dialectic as an operative worldly and cognitive function could elide the particularities of the Hegelian system because the group’s approach to dialecticism was not, in fact, drawn from Hegel; nor was it entirely deducible from Engels or Marx. Rather, the group’s thinking about negation, mediation, and dialectical notions of change and causality drew upon a far less contemporary source. Beginning in the mid-1920s, the surrealists looked to one of Hegel’s own avowed precursors as an object lesson in an unrecuperable dialectics, drawing upon the fragmentary work of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (535–c
). ‘Heraclitus’, as Breton would put it in 1934, ‘is surrealist in dialectic’, an insistence that would persevere within surrealist thinking well into the post-Second World War period.5
The significance of
Heraclitus is twofold: first, the pre-Socratic thinker introduced a dialectic anterior to Hegelian panlogism, which characterized negation in terms of an elementary volatility to which knowledge (logos
) and the world (physis
) were mutually subject. Second, as a body of ancient work available only through textual fragments, the very condition of Heraclitus’s work allegorized this twofold volatility, demonstrating the extent to which its concept of negation would be mediated by its own concrete conditions, its status as a material text. Heraclitus’s work thus doubly articulated the ‘practical possibilities’ to which Breton dedicated surrealist activity: the medium for dialectical movement would no longer be the Hegelian systematics of panlogism and ‘Spirit’, but the vicissitudes of consciousness, and of textual and material media alike.
The October 1927 issue of La Révolution surréaliste
published a pair of articles introducing Heraclitus into the group’s intellectual genealogy. The first of the two articles is a brief biographical sketch of the pre-Socratic philosopher reprinted from François Fénelon’s 1726 Abrégé des vies des anciens philosophes
. The second, a book review by Aragon, is more polemical, representing as much an incursion against ‘the sentinels of common sense’, as Breton had written of the state of contemporary philosophy, as a panegyric to ancient philosophy. Entitled ‘Philosophie des paratonnerres’ (Philosophy of lightning-conductors), Aragon’s review addresses the contemporary scholarly interest in the ancient philosopher, which approached Heraclitus as a knowable and ideologically consistent precursor to Hegel and Marx, an ancient source of dialectical thought.6
The recourse to Fénelon stressed, however, that any such approach could hardly be straightforward, since Heraclitus has always been considered ‘obscure, because he only spoke through enigmas’, as Fénelon (1927: 43) put it. Aragon notes that Hegel famously regarded Heraclitus as his precursor in developing a theory of dialectical change. Yet unlike Hegel, Heraclitus left behind no complete system, no coherent body of philosophical work. The conceptual and material difficulty of any approach to Heraclitus’s philosophy – which was not only notoriously enigmatic, but extant only in fragmentary form – resisted such totalizing systems. To this end, Heraclitus offers a corrective not only to the instrumentalism of contemporary philosophy, but also to the panlogicism of Hegelian idealism; the fragments enabled the surrealists to approach the dialectic as a worldly, material dynamic rather than as the movement of a transcendental Mind.
Aragon’s approach to Heraclitus is framed in explicitly post-Hegelian terms. Asking ‘what is living and what is dead in the philosophy of Heraclitus’, Aragon reprises the title of Benedetto Croce’s 1907 commentary on Hegel, which likewise questioned the Romantic philosopher’s
panlogicism (which Croce (1915: 192) called a ‘morbid excrescence’, if not the ‘colossal abortion’ cited by Engels). Aragon is deeply critical of contemporary scholarship’s reduction of Heraclitian philosophy to stable, doctrinaire political values – as if seeking to retrench the pre-Socratic philosophy within a panlogistic ‘excrescence’ never fully his own. His essay indicates by contrast how a ‘return’ to Heraclitus offers a new basis for thinking about the nature of empirical, historical, and ultimately political change. In both its fragmentary form and its philosophical content, Heraclitus’s work reflects on the difficulty of knowledge and the commonality of flux and revolution in the empirical world, a theory whose very language insists upon confusion, contradiction, and wordplay. Heraclitus sketches a complex epistemology in which the ‘real’ of the natural world is as difficult to grasp as the articulation used to grasp it. This acknowledgment of a ‘missed encounter’ inherent within understanding indicates an implosion of panlogism from within: rather than appealing to grand idealist abstractions, Heraclitus testifies to the notion that the empirical is never immediately graspable in itself, a problem exemplified by the very medium of the textual fragments.7
As bewildering as they are influential, the cryptic and often dubious fragments of Heraclitus’s lost work On Nature
maintain, Aragon writes, ‘a prestige that ends up serving the most irreconcilable ends’ (Aragon 1927: 47). Yet, precisely for this reason, the pre-Socratic philosopher became a useful figure for surrealism’s efforts to recast the dialectic as a concrete basis for their creative and political activity. In this respect, the surrealist interest in Heraclitus indicates the group’s proximity to the philosophers in the École Pratique des Hautes Études such as Jean Wahl and Alexandre Koyré, in that both, by approaching
, rather than presuming, the concreteness of the empirical world treated dialecticism as a phenomenology that resists both positivism and idealism. At the same time, however, Aragon’s remark about irreconcilable ends bears the surrealist movement very much in mind; for in the years immediately following his review, the ancient philosopher would become a kind of ‘lightning-conductor’ (paratonnerre
) for the group’s own most irreconcilable ends, its fiercest debates, and its efforts to think through its dialectical functioning as an avant-garde collective.
Just as a lightning conductor’s usefulness only fully emerges during a storm, at a time of crisis, allusions to Heraclitus begin to appear in surrealist writings at the very moment when the group entered its turbulent period of adhesion to the French...