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In The Beginning

The term "surrealism" was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917 to describe Jean Cocteau's ballet Parade and his own play The Mammaries of Tiresias. After Apollinaire died the following year, André Breton appropriated the term in homage to the fallen poet. In contrast to Apollinaire's surrealism, which was basically analogical, Breton's Surrealism (with a capital S) was preoccupied with the Freudian unconscious. Breton, a former medical student who served as a psychiatric orderly during the war, sought to probe the secret recesses of the mind. In particular, since he was a practicing poet, he wondered what aesthetic discoveries they might hold.

Although Surrealist art and film were destined to achieve greater popular success, Surrealism was originally conceived as a literary movement. The Surrealists proposed exploring the unconscious via the written and/or spoken word. By systematically violating linguistic rules, they attempted to increase our ability to describe irrational experiences and illogical events. By pushing language to the edge of intelligibility—and beyond—the Surrealists created a powerful instrument for exploring the unconscious. Like the Dada movement, from which it originally sprang, Surrealism strove not only to revolutionize language but also to renew its primary function. Surrealist practitioners no longer regarded words as passive objects but rather as autonomous entities. "Words … have finished playing silly games," Breton proclaimed; "Words have discovered how to make love" (p. 286).

Surrealism's basic principles were not all promulgated at the same moment nor adopted by everyone with the same measure of enthusiasm. The first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) focused on the role of psychic automatism:

SURREALISM, n. Pure psychic automatism by which we propose to express—either verbally or in writing or in some other manner—the true functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside all aesthetic and moral preoccupations.

ENCYCL. Philos. Surrealism rests on a belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association neglected until now, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. Ultimately it tends to destroy all other psychic mechanisms and to take their place in resolving the principal problems of life.

Despite the excitement evident in these and similar proclamations, psychic automatism assumed a limited role in Surrealism. Most, if not all, of the Surrealists exercised a certain amount of conscious control over their works. Breton himself distinguished between Surrealist texts, which were entirely automatic, and Surrealist poems, in which unconscious desires were encompassed by a broader design.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Stomium to SwiftsSurrealism - In The Beginning, Marvelous Encounters, Later Developments, The Movement's Reception, Bibliography