Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, September 22, 2023

Remembering a Veteran: André Breton, French Medical Service, Father of Surrealism

Soldier, 1916

Born in Tinchebray in Normandy, the son of a shopkeeper, Andre Breton's early years were spent studying medicine. As a result, when the Great War arrived in August 1914, he found himself assigned to  a psychiatric ward in Nantes. 

There he became interested in psychiatric diseases such as hysteria and psychosis. In 1916, he worked as a medical orderly in Nantes and later as a student in the neuro-psychiatric center of the second army in Saint-Dizier (east of Paris). In Saint-Dizier, Breton especially cared for shell shock victims. He became fascinated with psychiatry and thought seriously about becoming a psychiatrist, but could not unequivocally decide to abandon literature.

He later wrote of this experience:

I was sent to a centre for disabled men, men sent home due to mental illness, including a number of acutely insane men, as well as more doubtful cases brought up on charges on which a medical opinion was called for. The time I spent there and what I saw was of signal importance in my life and had a decisive influence in the development of my thought. That is where I could experiment on patients, seeing the nature of diagnosis and psychoanalysis, and in particular, the recording of dreams and free association. These materials were from the beginning at the heart of surrealism’

From Saint-Dizier, Breton was sent to the front near Verdun as a stretcher bearer but due to shortage of personnel also served as a kind of doctor. From January to September 1917, Breton indeed worked under Babinski as a non-resident student at the neurological center of La Pitié  hospital in Paris. Later that year, Breton continued his studies at the military hospital Val-de-Grace and prepared for his exam. However, he never qualified as a medical doctor. Shortly after the war, he became involved in the avant-garde milieu, such as Dada. The origins of surrealism have further been traced back to several avant-garde currents including Dada and to the defeatism and feelings of disgust after World War I. Wartime experiences, such as the folly of political and military forces but also madness as a result of violence on individual men, served as inspiration. 

Surrealist, 1924

Breton's first collection of poems—written before and during the First World War—appeared in 1919 as Monte de Piete (Pawnshop).  By 1924 Breton had become a prominent figure in the Parisian avant-garde and had gathered around him a group of poets and artists interested in exploring the subconscious. The surrealist movement was launched that year with Breton's "Manifesto of Surrealism."

It's hard to summarize Breton's view of Surrealism, but perhaps some of his better known quotes will help a little:

The imaginary is what tends to become real.

The man who cannot visualize a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot.

Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all.

All my life my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name.

The mind, placed before any kind of difficulty, can find an ideal outlet in the absurd. Accommodation to the absurd readmits adults to the mysterious realm inhabited by children.

I could spend my whole life prying loose the secrets of the insane. These people are honest to a fault, and their naivety has no peer but my own.

Sources:, "Neurology and Surrealism: André Breton and Joseph Babinski", Brain, June 2012

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