Surrealism and the Occult Esotericism in Movements

Surrealism and the Occult Esotericism in Movements
© Photograph by Maren Klemp

Late in the summer of 1924, a small book was published in Paris. Although it garnered little attention at the time, this ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’ heralded the existence of an avant-garde movement that would prove to be one of the most influential of the twentieth-century.

A tiny movement of dissident writers at the time, Surrealism would grow quickly and expansively into an international force to be reckoned with, counting painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers and performers as well as writers and poets among its ranks.

In 1924, however, hardly anyone had heard of Surrealism outside of a small group of fledgeling surrealists themselves and André Breton (1896-1966), the Manifesto’s author, could only have dreamt of the way the adjective “surreal” would pass into everyday speech today.

Possibly that would have been a nightmare — for all that he intended Surrealism to be a revolution liberating mankind, and womankind too, it was emphatically not meant for all and sundry. Even though Surrealism celebrated elements of pop and mass culture, it was always positioned in the vanguard of society.

Indeed, in his ‘Second Manifesto’ of 1929, Breton insisted that “the approval of the public must be avoided like the plague.” After describing further concerns about Surrealism’s openness, he made it clear that access to Surrealism should be limited: “I call for the profound, the veritable occultation of Surrealism.”

While “occultation” can refer to concealing or hiding something, it may also be interpreted as indicating an alliance with the occult or engaging occultism. This book is concerned with the nature of Surrealism’s “occultation” in that sense: the presence of occultism in Surrealism. It offers a history of Breton’s relationship with occultism and his integration of it into his own work as well as in the Surrealism under his leadership.

Covering five decades of Surrealism, it is my aim to provide an overview of the particular occultisms that were relevant to Bretonian Surrealism, offering insight into the way in which Breton and his surrealists related to occultism and to what extent one can say Surrealism was really “occulted.”

André Breton and other surrealists provided several definitions of Surrealism and the surreal throughout their career, and central to most of them is a concept of mind, or psyche, in combination with the notion that Surrealism acts through or in the mind.

For instance, Breton provided the following definition of Surrealism in his Manifesto: “‘ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism’ is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of the dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.”

As “dreams” and “thought” indicate, mental processes form the heart of Surrealism. Surrealism should be understood foremost as a certain state of mind, hence Breton’s insistence that Surrealism was a psychic mechanism.

In the direct wake of the first French translations of Freud’s works, as well as in response to continued developments in psychiatry arising from the discovery of the unconscious in the nineteenth-century, the surrealists made the mind a seat of literary and artistic wonders.

As veritable “Marco Polos of the mind” or “speleologists of the psyche,” they set out to explore the mind and especially its subliminal states. In the first instance, subliminal states were explored as a means towards a more imaginative approach to literature, but quickly also to the visual arts.

Eventually, despite Surrealism being currently known predominantly as a visual arts movement, it transcended the arts and was intended to be a philosophy of life, or lifestyle as it would perhaps be expressed today, informed by a political agenda and geared towards revolution. Being a surrealist is a choice about how to interact mentally with the experienced world, be it inner or outer, real or surreal, and how to interpret it. “[Surrealism] is a means of total liberation of the mind and of all that resembles it.”

The mind could be liberated by various means, including by engaging the irrational rather than the rational, which was considered restrictive and bourgeois. Surrealism, Breton stated later, “[had opened] certain doors that rationalism boasted of having boarded up for good,” those doors being a variety of rejected mental states such as the dream, fantasy, hallucination or insanity, opening upon subliminal vistas of the wonderful, irrational, marvellous, mad and fantastic.

Occultism and related disciplines could provide the means of opening such doors too. One can think of parapsychology, known at the time as psychical research, which sought to explore hidden and lucid powers of the mind. One can think of magic, which was thought to operate upon the same principles as the “primitive” mind; namely, that of correspondences between things in the (phenomenal) world and between things in the mind and in the world. Or, too, of alchemy, which, according to surrealist interpretation going back to Romanticism, was primarily concerned with complex linguistic games, secret languages and metaphors.

Mysticism, occultism and Western esotericism, therefore, be it in the form of tropes, images, books, ideas or worldviews, or in the form of a coherent current of thought — generally termed “the hermetic tradition,” and later “esotericism” — found a place in Bretonian Surrealism as well.

As the title already indicates, my primary concern is with Breton and the Surrealism as espoused and directed by him. This results in an almost exclusive focus upon French Surrealism, at the expense of the Surrealisms that arose in other countries. It further leads to a marginalisation of surrealists other than Breton, and to a near exclusion of the French Surrealisms under different leadership, such as Georges Bataille (1897-1962) or the group Grand Jeu.

My choice is partly guided by the fact that there is no denying that the current perception of the discourse of Surrealism is defined for a significant part by Breton’s writings. The particularly close-knit character of the surrealist group made them a true collective, practically as well as ideologically.

Their intense contact, excellently analysed by Bandier, means I feel confident positing that (at least for his group) Breton functioned as the “gatekeeper”: controlling the group’s composition, activities, source material, input, output and ideology to a considerable extent.

Moreover, my focus upon Breton and “his” Surrealism is particularly relevant in the context of occultism, in which some scholars have accorded Breton a central role.

I have set out here to both define that role and question that which other authors have ascribed to him. Other artists whose interest in occultism was just as avid as that of Breton, or even surpassed it, such as Max Ernst (1891-1967) and Victor Brauner (1903-1966), have recently been recipients of thorough and excellent scholarly studies.

In Breton’s case, however, scholars have, as a rule, either resorted to vague and generalising statements that beg for specification, or have argued in favour of a very occult Breton with which I disagree.

I propose, therefore, to write an alternative history of Bretonian Surrealism; specifically, a history that not only diverges from the view that the Surrealism of Breton had little to do with occultism, or esotericism, but also from the view that it had everything to do with it.