Go to homepage



Current issue




Go to writer's guidelines

The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

Romanticism and revolution: some notes on the surrealist project

by Alice Whittenburg

By 1990 the “velvet revolution” had occurred in what was then Czechoslovakia, and the transition to a parliamentary democracy was taking place. Jan Svankmajer, filmmaker and leading member of the Group of Czech and Slovak Surrealists, published an essay at this time in which he discussed the sweeping changes taking place in Czechoslovak society and how those changes might effect the Surrealist movement. He made little reference to the revolutionary politics that had once been advocated by Andre Breton (though, admittedly, the persistent focus on political struggle that appeared, for example, in Breton’s address to the “Leftist Front” of Karel Teige and Vitezslav Nezval in Prague in 1935 would have seemed inappropriate to the historic moment in 1990). Instead, Svankmajer found it more apt to speak in terms of peaceful evolution, rather than revolution, yet to speculate about the end, not only of civilization, but of history itself. Though Svankmajer also made reference to the ideas of Sigmund Freud, he did so to note that human beings have had to abandon a number of illusions, including “the illusion that [they are] the supreme ruler[s] of [their] thoughts and actions,” but he discussed this in the larger context of renouncing anthropocentrism and civilization and of calling for a return to nature. “In the same way as the communist party (i.e., the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) had to renounce its leading position in society and return to political plurality,” he said, “so Mankind will have to renounce its leading role in the world and return to nature’s plurality as one out of many.” This is an approach, of course, that is more in keeping with the Freudian-influenced theory of Herbert Marcuse than the ideas Freud himself expressed in Civilization and Its Discontents; however, it also expresses the intensely Romantic focus of the Surrealists’ vision of the world. This Romantic vision was emphasized when Svankmajer noted that the return to nature would involve the abandonment of aspects of science and technology and the return of art “to the practice of life, as an instrument of everyday rituals and as an expressive means of myths.” He then stated uneasily that until this could occur, conservative thought might predominate and “in art the romanticism of artistic avant-gardes w[ould] be replaced by the boredom of a new… classicism.” (emphasis mine; all quotes from Svankmajer) Yet this statement, and the general position expressed in Svankmajer’s essay, indicated that Surrealism would continue to take a consistently romantic position, as it had done since the time of Breton. How the Surrealists have attempted to address the shortcomings of Romanticism through their political agenda is the subject of this essay.

Any artistic movement that has a deep interest in the imagination and its wellsprings owes a debt of gratitude to the Romantics. Andre Breton acknowledged Surrealism’s debt in comments he made in 1930 about an upcoming celebration of the hundredth anniversary of romanticism in France. He said the Romantic movement was still in the flower of its youth, and that what was wrongly called its historic period was nothing but “the cry of a newborn child which is only beginning to make its desires known though us.” He also said that if classicism could be regarded as good, the newborn romantic child wished “naught but evil” (Breton’s emphasis). (Breton, 153) Such a statement foreshadowed Svankmajer’s comments about the relative values of classicism and romanticism, but it was also an overt expression of Breton’s view that Surrealism was a part of the long history of the Romantic movement. Though Breton’s speeches and manifestos don’t usually express this quite so clearly, a cursory examination of the Surrealist project will show the many ways it has reflected the Romantic worldview, most specifically that of the German Romantics. This is especially true in regard to the Surrealists’ focus on altered states of consciousness, their interest in the occult, their ironic point of view, and their antibourgeois attitudes.

Despite the negative attention their philosophy and literature have received as possible precursors of Nazi attitudes toward nature and folk culture, the German Romantics were a diverse movement that included both reactionary Prussian nationalists like Achim von Arnim and radical visionaries like Arnim’s wife Bettina. They focused on the “inward path” to truth and said that it was in the inner world of the self that truth and the meaning of the human condition were to be found. They also believed that to understand the world we must explore the dark, hidden areas of the mind and the realms of feeling and imagination. (Lavine, 203) Johann Wilhelm Ritter, a physicist and advocate of the romantic notion of Nature Philosophy, conducted experiments in a variety of areas of science, including optics. He also investigated somnambulism and hypnotism, and he developed a theory of “passive consciousness,” which he said was a state that counterbalanced our active consciousness. It is the “somnambulist within us,” he said, that helps us to regain a childlike sense of participation in the world, to get in touch with the things normal consciousness regards as alien or distant. (Cardinal, 91) The much-used Surrealist technique of automatic writing bears a closer resemblance to the notion of “passive consciousness” than it does to those techniques psychoanalysts use to access subconscious material, such as free association and projective testing. In fact, automatism is regarded by some as having come directly out of Ritter’s theories. (Cardinal, 24) In addition, the games and experiments that are described in Analogon, the publication of the Group of Czech and Slovak Surrealists, bear a strong resemblance to the experiments Ritter conducted. As a result of this interest in the dark, hidden areas of the mind, the Romantics frequently concerned themselves with the mystical and the supernatural. The Romantic writer known as Novalis was especially drawn to such things after the death of his fiancée, and he turned to the work of mystic writers, including Jacob Boehme. E.T.A. Hoffmann was also deeply interested in the supernatural, and he associated inspiration and insight with phenomena such as clairvoyance, dreams, and poetic visions. These, he thought, provided glimpses into a second reality that usually eludes us, and elements of the natural and supernatural were carefully woven into his stories. As for the Surrealists, Breton in his Second Manifesto simply said, “I ASK FOR THE PROFOUND, THE VERITABLE OCCULTATION OF SURREALISM.” (emphasis Breton’s) He also called for taking seriously the study of astrology and metaphysics (Breton, 178), just as the Group of Czech and Slovak Surrealists has called for attention to the meanings of alchemy.

Irony was an important part of the Romantic approach, because, as Friedrich Schlegel said, irony is a mediating principle between what the artist would like to say and what he actually can say. Schlegel tended to use the fragment, or short aphoristic text, to communicate his ideas. He held that meaningful fragments could only be formulated by a mind that could combine enthusiasm and detachment. He advocated ironic distance as the prerequisite for any accurate expression of ideas-sheer enthusiasm is not enough and the artist must remain disengaged if he is to maintain his creative freedom. He believed that the artist created his own world in which fantasy is supreme, and because the Romantic was trying to express ideas of great magnitude (i.e., the infinite), he couldn’t help but feel inadequate and had to adopt a strategy of ironic self-transcendence to overcome anxiety about failure. Paradox, self-parody, and confessions of inadequacy were all means to bridge the gap between inspiration and recognition of its shortcomings. (Cardinal, 48) The Surrealists tended to produce short works similar to the aphoristic texts written by the German Romantics. These often consisted of automatically written passages filled with startling images, linked together without much continuity as in Breton’s own “Soluble Fish,” or of works like the “exquisite corpses” in which a group of people each contributed a short portion without knowing, until the end, what the whole would be. Partly because such texts required the writer not to be so invested in the outcome and to forego the usual satisfactions of authorship, Breton called for an ironic approach in which an “unflagging fidelity to the commitments of Surrealism presupposes a disinterestedness, a contempt for risk, a refusal to compromise, of which very few men prove, in the long run, to be capable.” (Breton, 129)

Another aspect of the Romantic movement was that it rejected a life of bourgeois virtue, though its proponents tended to be social and cultural radicals whose vehicle was art rather than politics. Some of the Romantics, notably Achim von Arnim, became quite reactionary; others (notably Arnim’s wife Bettina and Friedrich Schlegel) championed causes such as antimilitarism, free love, women’s equality, and the fight against the emptiness of bourgeois life. As a whole, however, the Romantics were much more concerned with the inner life, the imagination, and the needs of the individual than with any political struggle. The Romantic movement was, in fact, a quintessentially individualistic one, and its shortcomings were seriously addressed by Soren Kierkegaard. In his work The Sickness Unto Death Kierkegaard addressed the romantic existence and its focus on the infinite number of possibilities offered by the imagination; he said that this led to something called the “despair of infinitude,” which involved feeling things out of proportion to their objective importance, thinking of matters far removed from real concerns, and willing the impossible-that is, wanting to achieve goals without regard for the practical steps necessary to accomplish them. (Mullen, 62) Earlier, Kierkegaard had made a critique of the Romantics in Either/Or, his first published work, which was written after he went to hear the Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling speak. Kierkegaard called the Romantics “aesthetes” because for them the aesthetic process (as romantically understood) provided them with a life model in which, for example, freedom was seen to be like the control of the artist over his medium. (Mullen, 106) Breton may not have mentioned Kierkegaard and the notion of the despair of infinitude, but he was forced to take many of these concerns into consideration in his attempt to address the problems inherent in Surrealism’s Romantic approach.

Without a doubt, Breton also rejected a life of bourgeois virtue, and he opposed bourgeois institutions passionately. “Everything remains to be done, every means must be worth trying, in order to lay waste to the ideas of family, country, religion,” he said in his Second Manifesto. (Breton, 128, emphasis Breton’s) Yet he was not comfortable with the apolitical Romantic approach, precisely because he wasn’t comfortable with an individualistic approach in general. In the First Manifesto, he listed a number of writers and artists and criticized them for sometimes but not always being surrealist, saying they were “instruments too full of pride.” (Breton, 27) He said that one should be a modest recording instrument only, and that one has talent no more than does a mirror or the sky. (Breton, 28) (Max Ernst reflected such a view when he discussed his frottage and grattage techniques and implied that he took up these techniques because they rested “upon nothing more than the irritability of the mind’s faculties by appropriate technical means” and had nothing to do with the active work of the artist. In this regard, he said, the critics were “terrified to see the importance of the ‘author’ being reduced to a minimum and the conception of talent abolished.”) (Ades, 37 and 39) But if Breton had some understanding of the problems inherent in the Romantic approach, which Kierkegaard described as the “despair of infinitude, what did he do about this? Instead of acknowledging that it might not be possible to resolve Romanticism’s inherent contradictions, Breton attempted to bring the work of Hegel and Marx to bear on the problem.

In his Second Manifesto, Breton went on at length about the importance of the German philosopher Hegel. After Hegel, Breton says, no ideological system “can fail to compensate for the void that would be created, in thought itself, by the principle of a will acting only for its own sake and fully disposed to reflect on itself.” (Breton, 138) Hegel believed that the need to be unified with others and participate in a purpose larger than one’s own, to be part of a social whole, was more important than the idealization of the autonomous individual that one finds both in Enlightenment and Romantic thought. Hegel’s philosophy focused on the role of the individual in serving the nation-state, in being a culture carrier, rather than on his or her unique plans and aspirations. (In The Sickness Unto Death Kierkegaard said that the opposite of the despair of infinitude, into which the Romantics fell, was the despair of finitude. This he associated with Hegel’s philosophy, which he said permitted one to throw oneself into the world, forget one’s own name, and become “an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.” (Mullen, 63) Though Kierkegaard was talking about a certain conformist bourgeois lifestyle, the same description in modified form could also be applied to the collectivist mentality expected of a member of the Communist Party.) Despite his opposition to them in many ways, however, Hegel was deeply influenced by the Romantics, and like them he was looking for a philosophy that would reach to infinity, that would take into consideration the paradoxes that are found in the world. To address these issues Hegel brought the dialectic to bear upon them. Hegel’s dialectic is a process through which a concept, or thesis, is confronted with its opposite, or antithesis, resulting in a synthesis that resolves the conflict between the previous two concepts. It was the Hegelian notion of the dialectic that Breton called upon as he tried to make his Romantic approach a less individualistic one. He described the antithetical notions Surrealism must deal with: “reality and unreality, reason and irrationality, reflection and impulse…,” and he said that Surrealism tends to take “as its point of departure” Hegel’s philosophy. (Breton, 140) Stating that the dialectic in its Hegelian form was ultimately “inapplicable” to Surrealism, however, Breton turned to the historical materialism of Marx. (Breton, 141) This was followed by his endorsement of an attempt at an alliance with the Communist Party, a move that clearly involved a turn away from individualism and toward a purpose larger than the self. (Breton, 142) Yet no sooner had Breton described an alliance with the Communist Party than he was reporting the problems inherent in such an alliance; the tone of this part of the manifesto reflected, at one and the same time, his desire to be part of an all-encompassing group and his irritable reaction to the pressures inherent in being part of such a group. He noted that he was considered by the Communist Party to be “one of the most undesirable intellectuals,” and complained that someone from the French Communist Party had stated, “If you’re a Marxist, you have no need to be a Surrealist.” (Breton, 142 & 143) Whatever the difficulties this uneasy alliance presented, however, Breton persisted in saying again and again that the avant-garde artist should be a member of a revolutionary political movement. (Breton, 224)

This aspect of Breton’s project was an understandable one, even an admirable one, but we cannot say it was a successful one. The individualism inherent in a Romantic movement like Surrealism could not ultimately be addressed by linking that movement with Marxism-Leninism. It was not possible to create a smooth and perfectly resolved dialectical synthesis between the Romantic individual’s life as a work of art and the committed life of the member of a revolutionary group--the hostile attitudes of the Communists made that clear almost immediately. But these are very different times and, as has been discussed earlier, Svankmajer and others in the contemporary Surrealist movement have begun to try new approaches to undermine the essential individualism of their project. By reducing Marx to his views on classless society (and leaving out the whole notion of class struggle) and Freud to his focus on civilization (without regard for the fact that he saw its “discontents” as necessary), Svankmajer has tried for a Marcusean approach that might solve the problem of Romantic individuality inherent to the Surrealist movement. When he talked about what humanity might gain after civilization had been destroyed, he said, “it will gain life in a non-repressive society and in this way also a sense of security, it will gain meaningfulness of its actions, a true social justice and moreover it will have again something to drink, eat, and breathe.” (quotes from Svankmajer essay) But this kind of a search for an ultimate resolution-an end of civilization, an end of history-still leaves Surrealism seeming like a Romantic movement that’s denying its despair of infinitude. Seeing the Romantic project as the thesis, the return to primitive communism as the antithesis, and the Surrealist movement as the synthesis does even less to address these contradictions than Breton did when he posited revolutionary communism as romanticism’s antithesis.

This is, perhaps, where irrealism comes in. Where Surrealism tries to present a synthesis of reality and the dream, which it calls Surreality; where the Surrealists try to come up with a synthesis between an essentially individualistic project and a revolutionary movement, irrealism is neither so ambitious nor so eager to encounter the despair of infinitude. We might instead talk about the essentially irresolvable tension between the dream state and reality from which irreal literature springs (see G.S. Evans essay in this issue of “Irreal (Re)views”). We might also talk about the irresolvable conflict between living for the good of oneself and living for the good of others, and we might look at the political theories of writers such as Andre Gorz whose ideas about the heteronomous sphere and the autonomous sphere do not ask us to resolve these conflicts but instead to admit to them. But those are issues to be dealt with in a future essay on the politics of irrealism…

Primary Works Cited

Ades, Dawn. Dada and Surrealism. Woodbury, New York: Barron’s, 1978.

Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Tr. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan, 1969.

Cardinal, Roger. German Romantics in Context. London: Studio Vista, 1975.

Lavine, T.Z. From Socrates to Sartre: the Philosophic Quest. New York: Bantam, 1984.

Mullen, John Douglas. Kierkegaard’s Philosophy. New American Library, 1981.

Švankmajer, Jan. "To Renounce the Leading Role". web address, 199?.

Back to the Top

The Cafe Irreal: Current Issue | Irreal (Re)views | Archives | Theory | Links | Guidelines

Previous | Next


copyright by author 2002 all rights reserved