Michael Löwy | Incandescent Flame: Surrealism as a Romantic Revolutionary Movement

Raoul Ubac | Photo révélée, 1939-1940


What is romanticism? Often it is reduced to a nineteenth century literary school, or to a traditionalist reaction against the French Revolution—two propositions found in countless works by eminent specialists in literary history and the history of political thought. This is too simple a formulation. Rather, Romanticism is a form of sensibility nourishing all fields of culture, a worldview which extends from the second half of the eighteenth century to today, a comet whose flaming “core” is revolt directed against modern industrial civilization, in the name of some of the social and cultural values of the past. Nostalgic for a lost paradise—real or imaginary—Romanticism is in opposition to the melancholic mood of despair, to the quantifying mind of the bourgeois uni- verse, to commercial reification, to the platitudes of utilitarianism, and above all, to the disenchantment of the world.

Surrealism is the most striking and the most fascinating example of a Romantic current in the twentieth century. It is the one which has carried to its highest expression the Romantic aspiration to reenchant the world. It is also the only one which has incarnated, in the most radical fashion, the revolutionary dimension of Romanticism. The revolt of the mind (spirit) and social revolution are the polar stars around which the movement has oriented itself from its beginnings, driving it in a perpetual search for cultural and political practices that are subversive. At the cost of multiple secessions and defections, the core of the Surrealist group, around André Breton and Benjamin Péret, never abandoned its intransigent rejection of the established social, moral, and political order—nor its jealously guarded autonomy, despite affiliation or sympathy with different currents of the revolutionary left.

The Surrealist movement’s opposition to capitalist civilization is neither reasonable nor moderate: it is radical, categorical, irreducible. In one of their first documents, “Revolution Now and Forever” (1925), the founders of Surrealism proclaimed,

Everywhere that Western civilization rules, all human relationships have ceased, with the exception of activities motivated by economic interest, “payment in cold, hard cash.” For more than a century, human dignity has been reduced to the level of an exchange-value. . . . We do not accept the laws of Economy and Exchange, we do not accept enslavement to Work.1

Much later, recalling the very beginnings of the movement, Breton observed, “At that time, the Surrealist refusal was total, absolute, unable to be channeled into the political arena. Every institution on which the modern world rested, or through its logical evolution resulted in the First World War, was scandalous and aberrant in our eyes.”2

This visceral rejection of social and institutional modernity did not stop the Surrealists from referring to cultural modernity— which derived from Baudelaire and Rimbaud.

The favorite targets of the Surrealist attacks on Western civilization were narrow-minded rationalism, conventional realism, and positivism in all its forms.3 In the First Surrealist Manifesto (1924), Breton denounced the attitude shown in the suppression, “under the guise of civilization, or under the pretext of progress,” of anything that hints of the chimerical; faced by a sterilized cultural horizon, he affirmed his belief in the omnipotence of dream.4 The search for an alternative to this civilization would remain present throughout the history of Surrealism—including the 1970s, when French and Czech Surrealists published, with Vincent Bounoure, La civilisation surréaliste.

Breton and his friends had never hidden their attachment to the Romantic tradition of the nineteenth century—whether German (Novalis, Arnim), English (Gothic novels), or French (Hugo, Pétrus Borel). What did Romanticism mean to the Surrealists? To them nothing was more hateful than the limited academic approach which made Romanticism a “literary genre.” Here is how Breton put it in “The Concept of Freedom of the Romantics” (1945):

The image of Romanticism imposed upon us by scholars is a falsified image. The use of national categories and absurd pigeonholes only serves to separate literary genres and impedes the consideration of the Romantic movement as a whole.”5

In fact, Romanticism is a worldview—in the sense of a Weltanschauung—which cuts across nations and eras:

It must be observed that Romanticism, as a specific state of mind and mood whose function is everywhere to instill a new gen- eralized conception of the world, transcends those fashions— severely limited—of feeling and speaking which are proposed concerning it. . . . Through the multiplicity of works produced by or deriving from it, through Symbolism and Expressionism especially, Romanticism can be seen as a continuum.6

Surrealism even places itself within this temporal continuity of Romanticism as “state of mind.” Critiquing the official celebrations of the centennial of French Romanticism in 1930, Breton commented in the Second Surrealist Manifesto,

We say that Romanticism, which today we willingly conceive ourselves as the tail—but a very prehensile tail—by its very essence remains uncompromising in its negation of these bureaucrats and their festivals; its century of existence is only its youth, which has been wrongly called its heroic epoch, and in truth can only be taken for the first cry of a being just beginning to make its desires known through us.7

Nothing would be more false than to conclude, from that statement, that the Romanticism of the Surrealists is the same as that of the poets or thinkers of the nineteenth century. Surrealism forms, by its methods, its artistic or political choices, its outward manifestations, something radically new, which fully belongs to the culture of the twentieth century and which cannot be considered a simple reedition, or even worse, an imitation of the first Romanticism.

Of course, the Surrealist reading of the Romantic heritage from the past is highly selective. What attracts the Surrealists to the “gigantic structures of Hugo,” to certain texts of Musset, of Aloysius Bertrand, Xavier Forneret, and Nerval is, as Breton writes in “The Marvelous Against the Mystery” (Le merveilleux contre le mystère), the “desire for human emancipation in its totality.” Also, in a “number of Romantic or post-Romantic writers”—like Borel, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Daumier, or Courbet—it is the “spontaneous hatred of the bourgeois type,” the “desire to be absolutely noncompliant with the ruling class,” whose domination

is a sort of ulcer from which—one must prevent the most precious human acquisitions from being stripped of their meaning; an ulcer resulting only in the daily worsening and debasement of the human condition—it is no longer enough to bind it, but one day we must apply the cauterizing iron.8

Breton did not ignore the “fairly confused but ultrareactionary doctrine” espoused by Novalis in his essay “Europe, or the Christian” (1799) or the hostile position taken by Achim d’Arnim to the French Revolution. But that did not prevent their works, veritable lightning bolts, from shaking the foundations of the cultural order through their questioning of the separation between the real and the imaginary.9 Their thinking thus took on a profoundly utopian/ subversive dimension, as for example when Novalis in his philosophical fragments, “reclaimed as his own the magical postulate par excellence (and did it in a way that barred any reservations on his part): ‘It is up to us to make the world conform to our desire.’”10

The Surrealist passion for premodern cultural forms and traditions is selective: unhesitatingly, the Surrealists draw from alchemy, the Kabbala, magic, astrology, primitive art from Oceania or America, and Celtic art.11 All their activities on this terrain are aimed at exceeding the limitations of “art”—as a separate, institutionalized, ornamental activity—to enter the limitless adventure of the reenchantment of the world. Nevertheless, as revolutionaries inspired by the spirit of the Enlightenment, of Hegel, and above all of Marx, the early Surrealists were resolute and uncompromising enemies of some values at the core of the reactionary cultural Romanticism: religion and nationalism. As the Second Manifesto states, “Everything must be tried, every effort must be made to destroy the myths of family, nation, religion.”

Let’s examine two examples of the Surrealist reinterpretation of “archaic” or precapitalist elements: magic and primitive arts.12

André Breton, in L’art magique, defined magic as “all human operations having as their goal the imperious domination of the forces of nature through the use of secret practices of a more or less irrational character.” It “implies protest, even revolt”; pride, too, in its assumption that man “controls” (disposes of) the forces of nature. Religion, in contrast, is the domain of resignation, begging, and penitence: “Its humility is total, because it leads [man] to pray in his unhappiness to the very power that has rejected him.”13

For the Surrealists, the sacred, in its religious, hierocratic, clerical, institutional forms, as a system of authoritarian prohibitions, inspires only an irrepressible desire for transgression, profanation, and desacralization through irony, scorn, or black humor.

Breton borrowed the concept of magic art from Novalis. It was that “great Romantic spirit” who chose the words to describe the art form Breton hoped to encourage, both rooted in the past and blended with a “strong tension toward the future”:

In the sense in which Novalis understood them, one expected not only to find the quintessential achievement of a millennium of experience, but also [to find] its supersession thanks to his bringing into being a conjunction of the most brilliant lights of the mind and heart.14

For Breton, all art had its origins in magic, but he proposed the designation of a specifically magical art for that art which “recreated to some degree the magic which created it.” What is it that the ancient magician and the modern Surrealist artist have in common? In his inquiry into magical art, Breton declared that they “both elaborated the ways and the means of enchanting the universe.”15

At first, magic was condemned, persecuted—there were witch-hunts!—and it was banished by institutional religion. In place of magic, religion imposed the holy, the sanctified, the venerable as separate and inviolable realms. Later, magic was eradicated by industrialist civilization, which systematically destroyed whatever could not be calculated, quantified, or turned into merchandise. The task of the total disenchantment of the world which, according to Max Weber, characterizes the modern world, has driven from human life not just magic, but everything that tries to escape the rigid and narrow-minded confines of use value.

If magic attracts the attention of the Surrealists with an irresistible pull, it’s not because they want to control the forces of nature through ritual acts. What interests them in “primitive” magical practices—as with alchemy and other hermetic arts—is the immense charge of poetic electricity that these activities contain. That charge allows them to drain the cultural order of the establishment of its positivist conformity. Other forms of magic give off sparks which are able to ignite and aid Surrealism in its eminently subversive enterprise of the poetic reenchantment of the world.

The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of primitive art. The attraction of “primitive” or “savage” cultures is a recurring theme in Romanticism, where it inspired, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others, a revolutionary critique of modern civilization. Marx and Engels did not hide their admiration for the egalitarian, democratic way of life of those still living at the stage of “primitive communism,” like the indigenous peoples of North America. Engels was inspired, in The Origins of Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), by the work of the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, whose writings celebrated the free and interdependent universe of primitive folk, represented by the Iroquois Confederacy. Here is a passage from Morgan’s work, cited by Engels, and—in reference to the two preceding authors—quoted by Breton in his presentation in Haiti (1945):

Since the beginning of civilization, the accumulation of wealth has become so enormous, its forms so diverse, its application so extensive and its administration so skillful in the interests of the property-owners, that this wealth has become, in the eyes of the people, a force impossible to master. . . . Democracy in its administration, fraternity in society, the equality of rights, and universal education will inaugurate the next, superior stage of society. . . . This will be a revival—but in a superior form—of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes.16

The early Surrealist interest in primitive civilizations was not limited to their ways of life, but also focused on the esoteric quality of their artistic works. Oceanic art represents, according to André Breton—in his famous article of 1948 “Oceania”—”the finest-ever effort conceived to understand the interpenetration of reality and dream, to triumph over the dualism of perception and representation.” He goes so far as to suggest that the Surrealist path, at its beginning—that is, throughout the 1920s—“is inseparable from the seduction, such was the fascination” exercised by the works of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the North Pole, or New Ireland. Why such a strong attraction? Here is the explanation proposed by Breton in the same text:

The marvelous, with all its assumptions of surprise, chance, the fulgurant vista of something more than what we can fully grasp, has never known in the plastic arts the triumphs which are accomplished in great number in Oceanic objects.17

The extraordinary spark of subjectivity in primitive arts was also seductive to other Surrealists. Here’s what Vincent Bounoure wrote regarding the surprising flash, the “piercing rays,” of the eyes of Oceanic figures:

The power of the unconscious (the mana of old-fashioned ethnological vocabulary) is expressed through the eyes: there is nothing in reality to which Oceania has been more sensitive. This accomplishment was completely absent in Greece—Hegel reproaches Greece endlessly for its marble eyes, the vacant stare of its gods. It’s remarkable that the expression of the eyes suggested to Oceanic peoples the use of methods unknown to the art of sculpture, powerless by itself—according to Hegel—to express the interior light. Oceania had innumerable materials at its disposal to intensify that strength. They inserted in the socket of the eye cowries, seeds, and berries, pearls and shell, each in turn animating its own Oceanic subjectivity.18

For those inclined to doubt the intrinsically revolutionary nature of Surrealist Romanticism, a striking example illustrates the spark of the message transmitted by Breton and his friends, and its ability, in favorable circumstances, to stir the revolutionary spirit. We return again to Breton’s speech in Haiti in 1945–1946.

First, some little-known facts about that episode: Breton’s conference on Surrealism in Port-au-Prince—which included the passionate statement, “We hold that the liberation of humanity is the sole condition for the liberation of the mind”—had stirred deep feelings among Haitian students and youth. In January 1946 they published a special issue of their review La Ruche—founded by the poets René Depestre, Jacques Stéphane Alexis, and Gérard Bloncourt—dedicated to Surrealism, which included the text of Breton’s speech. The publication was outlawed on the orders of President Elie Lescot—a puppet of the United States—who arrested its editors, provoking a student strike which caused a general strike that overthrew the president. Commenting on these events, several observers, among them René Depestre, have corroborated that the role of Breton’s speech was to spark the powderkeg.19

The revolutionary ambition of the Surrealists—like that of some Romantics—is greater and more vast than just the transformation of social or political structures. But it nevertheless includes revolutionary transformation, the act of breaking the chains of oppression, as the essential moment of emancipatory hope.

Translated by Jen Besemer.



1. La Révolution Surréaliste, no. 5 (1925). The text was signed by a large number of artists and intellectuals of the group, including Breton, Aragon, Eluard, Leiris, Crevel, Desnos, Péret, Soupalt, Queneau, etc.
2. André Breton, “La Claire Tour” (1951), in La Clé des champs, Paris 10/18, and J. J. Pauvert (1967), 42.
3. As Marie Dominique Massoni, editor of the journal SURR (Surréalisme, Utopia, Rêve et Révolte), published in Paris since the 1990s, has stated quite well, the Surrealists share with the Romantics “the refusal to see the world as existing only on a logical, mathematical, useful, verifiable, quantifiable basis—in sum, a bourgeois basis.” M. D. Massoni, “Surrealism and Romanticism,” in Max Blechman, Revolutionary Romanticism (San Francisco: City Lights, 1999), 194.
4. André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (Paris: Gallimard, 1967), 19, 37.
5. André Breton, “Evolution of the Concept of Liberty Through Romanticism” (1945), in Conjonction: Surréalisme et révolte en HaÎti, no. 194 (June 1992), 82.
6. André Breton, “Perspective Cavalière” (1963), in Perspective Cavalière (Paris: Gallimard, 1970), 227.
7. André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, 110.
8. André Breton, “Le merveilleux contre le mystère” (1936), in La Clé des champs, op. cit., 10, and “Position Politique de l’art” (1935), in Position politique du Surréalisme (Paris: Doniel-Gonthier, 1972), 25–26. There is an interesting analysis of the relationship between the Surrealists and German Romanticism in a recent book by K. H. Bohrer, Die Kritik der Romantik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1989), 48–61. On the link between Surrealism, Romanticism, and the student revolts of the 1960s, see R. Faber’s essay, “Fròhromantik, Surrealismus und Studentenrevolte, Oder die Frage nach dem Anarchismus,” in Romantische Utopie, Utopische Romantik, edited by R. Faber (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1979), 336–358.
9. André Breton, “Introduction” (1933) to Achim d’Arnim, Contes Bizzares (Paris: Julliard, 1964), 18, 20, 21. See also Tristan Tzara, in his essay “Le surréalisme dans l’après-guerre”: “Romanticism is essentially revolutionary, not only because it celebrates the ideas of liberty, but also because it proposes a new way of living and feeling, according to its dramatic visions of the world, made of contrasts, nostalgias, anticipations” (in Tristan Tzara, Oeuvres Complètes, vol. 5, edited by Henri Bèhar, 62 [Paris: Flammarion, 1982]).
10. André Breton, “Sur l’art magique” (1957), Perspective Cavalière, 142.
11. As Marie Dominique Massoni observes, “The power of desire and the marvelous inclines them [the Surrealists] toward hermeticism, as with the Romantics before them. From Enter the Mediums to the canvases of Camacho or Stejskal the Surrealists follow close behind the alchemist Eugène Canseliet and the esoteric tradition, divested of its occultist very often in honor of the Romantics. Breton had inscribed on his tomb: ‘I seek the gold of time.’ The reference to Romanticism as well as to alchemy is obvious there.” Revolutionary Romanticism, 197.
12. In the same spirit, I have examined the place of myth in Surrealism in my book (with Robert Sayre), Romanticism against the Tide of Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).
13. André Breton, L’Art magique (Paris: Ed. Phébus, 1991), 27.
14. Breton, “Sur l’art magique,” Perspective Cavalière, 140.
15. Ibid., 27, 261.
16. Breton, “Evolution du concept de liberté à travers le romantisme,” in
Conjonctions, 90. For a remarkable analysis of Marx’s Ethnological Notes and his interest in Lewis Morgan, see the North American Surrealist Franklin Rosemont’s essay, “Karl Marx and the Iroquois,” in Arsenal (Chicago: Black Swan Press, 1989).
17. André Breton, “Oceania” (1948), La Clé des champs, 278–280.
18. Vincent Bounoure, La Surréalisme et l’arts sauvages (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2001), 204. Here is how Bounoure, the principal instigator of the pursuit of the Surrealist adventure in Paris after 1969, explains the Surrealists’ fascination for Oceanic art: “The systematic recourse, with which the Surrealists pursue their program, to the mental functions which had been choked off bit by bit through the course of several thousand years of pretended civilization, their refusal of that dismemberment and that mutilation, cause them to impatiently listen for the secrets which seem to them to have been preserved by the Oceanic peoples, and which their formal creations leave transparent.” Ibid., 285.
19. René Depestre, “André Breton in Port-au-Prince,” in Michael Richardson, ed., Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Carribean (London: Verso, 1996), 232. The joy was short-lived: after a few days of freedom, the Lescot regime had been replaced by a military junta, which expelled André Breton from Haiti.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s