Main Purpose: Art’s purpose should not be to reflect the real, but rather to reach beyond its limitations.
Combining the exploratory verse of the French Symbolistes with the psychological rabbit hole of Sigmund Freud’s revelatory (but now mostly debunked) theories, surrealists considered the structures of art to be shackles holding them back from the purity of the human experience. Breton’s manifesto urged us to discover less restrictive means of expression by directly channelling mental functions, be it through dreams or any type of hallucinatory seance. Seeking to immediately transform the concept into a movement, Breton called upon authors, poets and artists to join him in the project. He also notes that he did not exactly “create” surrealism, but merely distinguished the movement as an artistic act with a specific purpose.
Two decades before Breton’s manifesto and several years before his untimely death, Apollinaire would introduce many of the movement’s characteristics in his uproarious retelling of the myth of Tiresias, the mythical Greek who transformed from a woman to man to gain power and run society. She then forces her husband to act graciously towards others and even grants him the ability to bear children, which makes him wealthy but causes hunger. While the play’s subject matter would now be considered whimsical at best, Apollinaire’s transformation of character and subversion of rules successfully challenged the strict tenets of French theater at the time.
Aragon’s novel is a pleasure to read because it looks everywhere that the common eye would not even consider glancing at. By combining fragments from newspapers, advertisements, conversation and other books on the page, The Paris Peasant is Aragon’s attempt at removing the filters that hinder the regular brain from the usual processes of receiving stimuli. Although he made a large contribution to the movement with this effort, the novel’s greater accomplishment was its wonderful demonstration of how tyrannical our own perception can be.
Breton’s short novel describes a short relationship between he and “gamine”, an attractive woman who is so fleeting that she is only featured in uncertain terms in brief digressions. Interspersed with images, drawings and references to his actual life, the novel depicts the narrator’s quest to find himself in a world he sees constricted by illusory limitations. Consider it his attempt to communicate the tenets of surrealism in, uh, “normal” language.