Surrealist Writers

Precursors: Lautréamont . . . Rimbaud . . . Roussel . . . Others . . . Dada . . .
Surrealists: André Breton . . . Dalí . . . de Chirico . . . Desnos . . . Duchamp . . .
Leiris . . . Peret . . . Queneau . . .


"Everything leads us to believe that there is a certain state of mind from which
life and death, the real and the imaginary, past and future, the communicable
and the incommunicable, height and depth are no longer perceived as contradictory."

-- André Breton, Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1929)

Surrealism is a movement in literature and art whose effective life is generally assigned the years 1924-1945 by historians. In 1924, André Breton's first Manifesto of Surrealism appeared, defining the movement in philosophical and psychological terms. Its immediate predecessor was Dada, whose nihilistic reaction to rationalism and the reigning "morality" that produced World War I cleared the way for Surrealism's positive message. (Other precursors and influences are listed below.)

Surrealism is often characterized only by its use of unusual, sometimes startling juxtapositions, by which it sought to trancend logic and habitual thinking to reveal deeper levels of meaning and unconscious associations. Thus it was instrumental in promoting Freudian and Jungian conceptions of the unconscious mind.

Throughout the 1920s and '30s, the movement flourished and spread from its center in Paris to other countries. Breton controlled the group rather autocratically, annointing new members and expelling those with whom he disagreed, in an effort to maintain focus on what he conceived as the essential principals or the fundamental insight which Surrealism manifested (a conception which changed, to some extent, during his life).

In the early '30s the group published a periodical entitled Surrealism at the Service of the Revolution (Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution, 1930-33). Communism appealed to many intellectuals at this time and the movement flirted briefly with Moscow; but the Soviets demanded full allegiance and the subordination of art to the purposes of "the State." The surrealists sought absolute freedom and their aim was a profound psychological or spiritual revolution, not an attempt to change society on a merely political or economic level. (The full history of surrealist political involvement is quite complex and led to dissent and the formation of various factions within the movement.)

With the advent of World War II, many of the Parisian participants sought safety in New York, leaving Paris to the Existentialists. By the war's end in 1945, Abstract Expressionism had superseded Surrealism as the western world's most important active art movement. "Ab Ex" grew out of both the tradition of Abstraction (exemplified by Kandinsky) and the "automatic" branch of Surrealism (exemplified by Joan Miro and André Masson) with Roberto Matta and Arshile Gorky as key pivotal figures.

But Surrealism did not die in 1945. Though the attention of the fickle art world may have shifted away, Breton continued to expound his vision until his death in 1966, and many others have continued to produce works in the surrealist spirit to the present day. The ongoing impact of Surrealism cannot be underestimated and must be granted a distinct place in the history of literature, art and philosophy.


Lautréamont (1846-1870)

Isidore Ducasse, the self-styled Comte de Lautréamont, was the first and foremost of Surrealism's literary precursors, inspiring them with such unexpected juxtapositions as "the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table." Following the scientific advances of Darwin and Auguste Compte, Lautréamont viewed literature and art as an attempt to confront, perhaps to solve, the "problem" that man, the "sublime ape," finds himself in the finite world and yet innately seeks after the infinite.

Born in Uruguay of French parents, Ducasse first went to Paris in 1867. His seminal work Les Chants de Maldoror was first published in 1868. It is said that he was murdered by Napoleon III's secret police.


Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)

"The poet is a true Stealer of Fire."

Symbolist author of two collections of prose poems, A Season in Hell (1873) and Illuminations (written 1875 or earlier, published 1886). At the age of 16 he condemned all French poetry as "rhymed prose" and even rejected his hero Baudelaire for being too self-consciously artistic; in his famous "lettre du voyant" (letter of the seer) he proposed "derangement of all the senses" as the first step in becoming a true poet-seer. In writing "I is another" ("JE est un autre"), Rimbaud foreshadowed the surrealist attitude toward the poet as a "modest recording machine" by proclaiming that the poet has to step aside and watch his thoughts unfold, allowing poetry to develop on its own. At the age of 21 Rimbaud declared his writing to be a failure and abandoned it in favor of real-life adventure -- in his case, ill-fated and legendary. Photo courtesy Robert Daeley.


Raymond Roussel (1877-1933)

Dandy and player of word games (and chess) whom Breton called "along with Lautréamont, the greatest hypnotist of modern times." His poem The View (1904) foreshadowed the New Novel; two novels, Impressions of Africa (1910) and Locus Solus (1914), which he also staged at extravagant expense, and plays "The Star on the Forehead" (1924) and "The Dust of Suns" (1926) and the posthumous fragment "Documents to Serve as an Outline" (1936) employ an artificial method of composition based on phonetic distortion. Roussel is also considered a pataphysician and a precursor of "the theatre of the absurd," and exerts a major influence on the Oulipo. His major works are in print from Atlas Press (London). A neurasthenic, he overdosed on barbiturates at the age of fifty-six.


Other Precursors



André Breton (1896-1966)

"Language has been given man

that he may make surrealist use of it."

He was called the Pope of Surrealism (as well as "A Corpse") by his detractors; but more than anyone Breton must be credited with the founding of the surrealist movement and was a life-long champion of the cause. He was author of the Surrealist Manifestoes (1924, 1929), several small volumes of poetry (including Earthshine [Claire de Terre, 1923] and Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares [1946]), the novel Nadja (1928) and further surrealist "evidence": The Magnetic Fields (1920, with Soupault -- called the first surrealist book), The Communicating Vessels (1932), Mad Love (1937) and Arcanum 17 (1944, rev. 1947).

Concerning Breton's life and work, Conversations (Entretiens, 1952) with André Parinaud and others is a revealing document, as are Anna Balakian's two insightful studies, Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute (1959, 1970, 1986) and André Breton, Magus of Surrealism (1971), and J.H. Matthews' 1967 André Breton. Mark Pollizotti has written a recent, extensive biography Revolution of the Mind(1995).

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989)

Dalí, best known (with Magritte) of the Surrealist painters, also wrote a novel, Hidden Faces (1945) and an important essay "The Conquest of the Irrational" (1935) on his paranoic-critical technique.


Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978)

Like Dalí, de Chirico is best known for his visual work -- as a Metaphysical painter who collaborated with the Surrealists -- but also wrote a short novel, Hebdomeros (1929), and various short prose pieces.   A collection was translated by John Ashbery and reprinted by Exact Change, Cambridge, in 1992.


Robert Desnos (1900-1945)


Praised by Breton for his apparent ability to fall into a trance at will and orate automatic verbage.  Ousted from the movement in 1929, he turned to journalism and returned to more traditional poetic forms before his death in the war.



Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)

Wrote Rrose Selavy, The Green Box and other texts, though he is best known as an artist (and chess player!). He has exerted profound influence on modern and avant garde art. He defied classification but was co-opted by Furturism and Cubism ("Nude Descending a Staircase"), dada and Surrealism.

Nadeau gives: "French. 'Benevolent technician.' Painter, writer, chess-player, founder of Dada in New York in 1913, external member of the surrealist group from 1924."


Photo: Monte Carlo Share (detail), 1924.



Michel Leiris (1901-1990)

A member of the surrealist group from 1924 to 1929, he wrote one of the first surreal novels, Aurora (1927-8); also an ethnologist and anthropologist, co-editor with Bataille of Documents and with Sartre of Les Temps Modernes. Provided indispensable biographical information on, and critical studies of, Raymond Roussel.



Benjamin Peret (1899 - 1959)

"This wine which is only white to make the sun come up
because the sun runs its hands through its hair."


One of the first Parisian Dadaists and one of the founders of Surrealism, Peret has been called "the best of the Surrealist poets" and was the most admired writer within the group. He also wrote a novel, Death to the Pigs and to the Field of Glory (1923), short fiction and critical essays. In addition to his surrealist work, Peret was a dedicated Communist for most of his life and was deported from Brazil for revolutionary activity. He also translated the Mayan Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel into French.


Photo: Peret in 1925.


Raymond Queneau (1903-1976)

Considered a precursor to the New Novelists, he wrote the novel Le chiendent (The Bark Tree) (1933) and twenty other books of poetry and prose, including the zany Zazie dans le Metro (1959), which was made into a film. He co-founded the Oulipo movement in France in 1960 with François le Lionnais (OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle - The Workshop for Potential Literature), whose principal task is "the systematic and formal innovation of constraints for the manipulation and creation of literary text" (Stefan Sinclair). Other Oulipo writers include: Italo Calvino, Jacques Roubaud, Georges Perec, and Harry Mathews.


These are only my favorites, but there are many other excellent Surrealist Writers, including: Louis Aragon, Rene Daumal, Paul Eluard, Jacques Prevert, those listed below, and others...

Other Surrealist Writer Sites


Surrealism is alive and well...


Created by Alan Gullette. Email: alan @ alangullette . com.
Also visit my Fiction of the Absurd page.