Book review: Arcanum 17 by Andre Breton

The Star (17th card in the Major Arcana)

And this light can only be known by way of three paths: poetry, liberty, and love, which should inspire the same zeal and converge to form the very cup of eternal youth, at the least explored and most illuminable spot in the human heart. (97)

As far as I can currently tell, Arcanum 17 is a shockingly undervalued text in the Surrealist canon of literature. My own proctor for my comps, who regularly teaches undergraduate classes in Dada and Surrealism, did not know about this book. It was a major turning point in Andre Breton’s life and in Surrealism, which was largely because his own hot head was finally cooled by WWII and his wife’s departure. This novel is a beautiful mixture of love letter, political pamphlet, myth, and meditation. It is part prose and part poetry, though in keeping with Breton’s transition away from automatic writing to instead rely on verbal imagery to disrupt traditional narrative structure, it is pushed more in the poetry direction. It is therefore difficult to actually read: it is like following his constantly-changing train of thought as he moves from one topic to the next, but all thoughts tie into certain central themes.

This book is about discovering love through loss: his newfound love of the woman who would become his third wife, Elisa, after his second wife, Jacqueline Lamba, left him along with their eight-year-old daughter; also the terrible destruction and darkness in Europe resulting from World War II (from which Breton had fled). Perhaps the most amazing thing about this book is that it is something of a Bretonian pre-feminist manifesto. It the first time that he not only acknowledges women as being as capable as men as artists (which he had never done before, as he had only seen women primarily as muses), but in fact superior:

I say that the time is past when we can be satisfied on this point by mere whims, by more or less shameful concessions; instead, those of us in the arts must pronounce ourselves unequivocally against man and for woman, bring man down from a position of power which, it has been sufficiently demonstrated, he has misused, restore this power to the hands of woman, dismiss all of man’s pleas so long as woman has not yet succeeded in taking back her fair share of that power, not only in art but in life. (62)

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Book review: Nadja by Andre Breton

A “self-portrait” of Nadja

Andre? Andre? … You will write a novel about me. I’m sure you will. Don’t say you won’t. Be careful: everything fades, everything vanishes. Something must remain of us… (100)

Andre Breton may be many things– hyper-masculine, self-absorbed, controlling, and a bit of a womanizer– but the following must be conceded: he is a beautiful writer. The best contemporary comparative description I have for his writing style is “cinematic”: in his sequences in which he is walking around Paris, you are full of feeling and almost forget that you are reading words. It is almost as though you are with him and are drinking in the sights and sounds of 1926 Paris. I was irresistibly reminded of how I feel when I watch “Amelie,” with its warm colors, intriguing characters, and quirky situations. But I digress.

Nadja is somewhere between an autobiography and historical fiction with a hint of magical realism. It is first and foremost a love story, but the big question is whom the object of affection is. The simple answer is the titular character, Nadja, a beautiful and intriguing woman whom Breton (writing both as the narrator and playing a main character) becomes obsessively infatuated with for 10 days. However, Nadja is full of many Surrealist ideas, thus raising the question if she is Surrealism itself. When Breton first meets her, he asks, “Who are you?” to which she answers, “I am the soul in limbo.” Nadja lives by intuition and sees the world differently than even Breton, who is arguably logical and reliant on reality (and if you’ve read the First Manifesto of Surrealism, you know that “reality” represents everything that is wrong with people. Lots of irony right there). The two contradictory ways of thinking lend to an interesting revelation about Breton himself, whom the book REALLY is about, making Nadja more of a secondary character and a conduit to the author/character’s own self-knowledge (of which he is both welcoming and terrified). Continue reading