André Breton, from Introduction
to the Discourse on the Paucity of Reality (1924)
Poetry evidences in our days such peculiar
requirements. See what importance it attaches to the possible, and its
love of the improbable. What is, or what might be—how insufficient that
appears to be. Nature, it denies your rule. Objects, what does it care
about your properties? ...
Now consider words . . . Words are likely
to group themselves according to individual affinities, which generally
have the effect of making them re-create the world each instant upon its
old model. Everything goes on, then, as though a concrete reality existed
outside the individual; I might say, as if such reality were immutable.
In the establishment of pure fact, pure and simple, if that is what we
are after, we must have absolute certainty in order to advance something
new, something the nature of which would shock common sense . . .
But, as I have already said, words, by virtue
of the characteristics we find in them, deserve to have another decisive
function. Nothing serves to modify them, since they respond in their own
way with such promptness to our appeal. It is enough that our criticism
should bear on the laws governing their assemblage. Does not the mediocrity
of our universe depend essentially on our power of enunciation? In its
most sterile seasons, poetry has often furnished proof of this; what debauches
of starry skies, precious stones, dead leaves. Thank God a slow but sure
reaction against this has finally developed in men's minds. Things said
over and over again today meet a solid barrier. They have riveted us to
this vulgar universe. It is from them we have acquired this taste for money,
these constraining fears, this feeling for the native land, this horror
of our destiny. I believe it is not too late to recoil from this deception,
inherent in the words we have thus far used so badly. What is to prevent
me from throwing disorder into this order of words, to attack murderously
this obvious aspect of things? Language can and should be torn from this
servitude. No more descriptions from nature, no more sociological studies.
Silence, so that I may pass where no one has ever passed. Silence! After
you, my beautiful language!
The object of language, they say, is to be
understood. But understood how? Understood no doubt by me, when I listen
like a child asking for the continuation of a fairy tale. Let them beware!
I know the meaning of all my words and follow naturally a syntax (syntax
which is not, as certain fools believe, a discipline). This being the case,
I cannot see why there should be an outcry when they hear me declare that
the most satisfactory image of the earth I can offer at this moment is
that of the cardboard hoop. If such an ineptitude has never been advanced
before me, then certainly it is not an ineptitude. Furthermore, I cannot
be taken to account for a statement of this kind without my demanding the
context. A rather dishonest person one day, in a note contained in an anthology,
made a list of some of the images presented to us in the work of one of
our greatest living poets. It read:
'The next day the caterpillar dressed for
the ball' . . . meaning 'butterfly'.
'Breast of crystal . . . meaning carafe'.
No, indeed, sir. It means nothing of the
kind. Put your butterfly back in your carafe. You may be sure Saint-Pol-Roux
said exactly what he meant.
Do not forget if for no other reason the belief
in a certain practical necessity prevents us from ascribing to poetic testimony
an equal value to that given, for instance, to the testimony of an explorer
. . . To satisfy this desire for perpetual verification, I recently proposed
to fabricate, in so far as possible, certain objects which are approached
only in dreams and which seem no more useful than enjoyable. Thus recently,
while I was asleep, I came across a rather curious book in an open-air
market near Saint-Malo. The back of the book was formed by a wooden gnome
whose white beard, clipped in the Assyrian manner, reached to his feet.
The statue was of ordinary thickness, but did not prevent me from turning
the pages, which were of heavy black cloth. I was anxious to buy it and,
upon waking, was sorry not to find it near me. It is comparatively easy
to recall it. I would like to put into circulation certain objects of this
kind, which appear eminently problematical and intriguing. I would accompany
each of my books with a copy, in order to make a present to certain persons.
Perhaps in that way I should help to demolish those concrete trophies which
are so odious, to throw further discredit on those creatures and things
Who knows? There might be idle machines of
a very scientific construction: Plans for immense cities might be minutely
outlined which, although we never could carry them out, at least might
classify the present and future capitals. Absurd automatons, perfected
to the last degree, which would function like nothing else on earth, might
give us an accurate idea of action.
Must poetic creations assume that tangible
character of extending, strangely, the limits of so-called reality? May
the hallucinatory power of certain images and the true gift of evocation
which certain people possess, independently of the faculty of memory, no
longer be misunderstood? The God within us does not, indeed, rest on the
seventh day. We still have the first pages of Genesis to read. It perhaps
remains for us only to hurl on the ruins of the ancient world the foundations
of our new terrestrial paradise. Nothing yet is lost, for we know by certain
signs that the great illumination follows its course. The perils into which
reason leads us, in the most general and debatable sense of the word, in
subjecting the works of the spirit to its irrevocable dogmas, in depriving
us of the mode of expression which harms us the least—this peril, doubtless,
is far from being dispelled. The deplorable inspectors who pursue us even
after we leave school make their rounds of our homes and our lives. They
make sure that we always call a cat a cat and, since after all we accept
this to a great extent, they refrain from sending us to the galleys or
the poorhouse or the penitentiary. Nevertheless, let us get rid of these
officials as soon as possible ...