Breton’s Attack on Bataille

André Breton’s attack on Bataille in the Second manifeste du surréalisme (1929) reflects the demise of the surrealist project of cultural revolution and, thus, a significant development in the French intellectual scene. The attack followed Breton’s unsuccessful attempt to establish the Surrealists as a cultural vanguard on the model of communist revolution. In 1926, Breton famously “excommunicated” Antonin Artaud, Philippe Soupault, and Roger Vitrac. Then, as several members of the group drifted away in 1928, Breton came to believe that another purge was needed. On 12 Feburary 1929, he sent a letter to self-proclaimed Surrealists and other intellectuals connected to the movement, asking them to commit themselves to the idea of collective action. Breton already knew who would respond favorably; the letter was thus a pretense for purging from the movement those who responded negatively and those who did not respond at all. Here is a portion of the letter:

1) Do you believe that, all things considered (importance of questions of persons, real lack of external determinations, passivity and impotence in organizing younger elements, inadequacy of an new contribution, and consequent accentuation of intellectual repression in every realm), you activity should or should not be definitively limited to an individual form? 2) If yes, will you undertake, in behalf of what might unite the majority of us, to set forth your motives? Define your position. If no, to what degree do you believe that a common activity can be continued; of what nature would it be, with whom would you choose or consent to conduct it? . . . (In Maurice Nadeau, History of Surrealism, trans. Richard Howard [New York: Macmillan, 1965], 155, n.1.)

Those who responded favorably were invited to a meeting on 11 March, where the first order of business was a reading of the responses to Breton's letter. In his History of Surrealism, Maurice Nadeau claims that Bataille’s response set the tone for “the most determined opposition” to Breton’s proposal and quotes the response as complaining, “Too many fucking idealists” (156). One can see, then, why Breton singled out Bataille for his most sustained criticism in the Second manifeste.


From André Breton, “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” Manifestoes of Surrealism, translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1969), 111-87; translation of Second manifeste du surréalisme (Paris: Kra, 1930). The Second manifeste was published originally in La Révolution surréaliste 12 (15 Dec 1929); a somewhat expanded version was published in book form by Kra in early 1930.

Image of front page of the Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1929)

[176] I say that Surrealism is still in its period of preparation, and I hasten to add that this period may last as long as I (as I to the very faint degree that I am not yet of a mind to admit that a certain Paul Lucas encountered Flamel in Brusa at the beginning of the seventeenth century, that this same Flamel, accompanied by his wife and one son, was seen at the Paris Opera in 1761, and that he made a brief appearance in Paris during the month of May 1819, at which time he was purported to have rented a store at 22, rue de Cléry, in Paris). The fact is that the preparations are, roughly speaking, “artistic” in nature. Nonetheless, I foresee that they will come to an end, and when they do the revolutionary ideas that Surrealism harbors will appear to the accompaniment of an enormous rending sound and will give themselves free rein. Great things can come of the modern shunting of certain wills in the future: assert- [177] ing themselves in the wake of ours, they will make themselves more implacable than ours. In any case, we shall in my opinion have done enough by having helped demonstrate the scandalous inanity of what, even when we arrived on the scene, was being thought, and by having maintained—if only maintained—that it was necessary for what had been thought to give way at last to the thinkable.

One has a right to wonder who precisely Rimbaud was trying to discourage when he said that those who tried to follow in his footsteps would be struck dumb or driven insane. Lautréamont begins by warning the reader that “unless he brings to his reading a strict logic and a well-steeled mind at least equal to his defiance, the mortal emanations of this book— Les Chants de Maldoror— will impregnate his soul, as water does sugar.” This question of malediction which till now has elicited only ironic and hare-brained comments, is more timely than ever. Surrealism has everything to lose by wanting to remove this course from itself. It is necessary to emphasize once again and to maintain here the “Maranatha” of the alchemists, set at the threshold of the work to stop the profane. This, it strikes me, is the most urgent matter to bring to the attention of some of our friends who appear to me to be a trifle too preoccupied with placing and selling their paintings, for instance. “I should be grateful,” wrote Nougé recently, “if those among us whose name begins to mean something, would erase it.” Without actually knowing who he has in mind, I think in any case that it is not asking too much of the former or of the latter to stop showing off smugly in public and appearing behind the footlights. The approval of the public is to be avoided like the plague. It is absolutely essential to keep the public from entering if one wishes to avoid confusion. I must add that the public must be kept panting in expectation at the gate by a system of challenges and provocations.


I proclaim, in this matter, the right of absolute severity. No concessions to the world, and no grace. The terrible contract in hand.

Cursed be they who would give out the baleful bread to the birds.

“Anyone who, desirous of attaining the supreme goal of the soul, sets out in search of the Oracle,” we read in the Third Book of Magic, “must detach his mind completely from commonplace things, in order to reach it, he must purify his mind of any malady, any weakness, spite, or similar defects, and of any state contrary to the reason which follows it, as rust follows iron,” and the Fourth Book specifies in no uncertain terms that the hoped-for revelation further requires that one keep oneself in a pure, bright place, wherein white wall hangings are every- [179] where apparent,” and that one confront the evil Spirits as well as the good only to the degree of “’dignification’” one has attained. He stresses the fact that the book of evil Spirits is written “on a very pure paper that has never been used for any other purpose,” a paper which is commonly referred to as “virgin parchment.”

There is no evidence that the Magi failed to keep their clothing and their souls in anything less than an impeccable state of cleanliness, and, expecting what we expect of certain practices of mental alchemy, I would likewise fail to understand how we could, in this same connection, be any less demanding than they. And yet this is precisely what we are most roundly taken to task for, and it is this aspect that M. Bataille, who is currently waging an absurd campaign against what he terms “the sordid quests for every integrity,” seems less willing to forgive [181] than any other of our alleged shortcomings. M. Bataille interests me only insofar as he imagines that he is comparing the harsh discipline of the mind to which we intend purely and simply to subject literally everything—and we see no problem in making Hegel primarily responsible for it—to a discipline which does not even manage to seem more cowardly, for it tends to be that of the nonmind (and it is there, in fact, that Hegel awaits it). M. Bataille professes to wish only to consider in the world that which is vilest, most discouraging, and most corrupted, and he invites man, so as to avoid making himself useful for anything specific,“ to run absurdly with him—his eyes suddenly become dim and filled with unavowable tears—toward some haunted provincial houses, seamier than flies, more depraved, ranker than barber shops.” If I sometimes happen [182] to relate such remarks, it is because they seem to implicate not only M. Bataille but also certain ex-Surrealists who wanted to be fully free to involve themselves anywhere and everywhere. Perhaps M. Bataille is sufficiently forceful to bring them together, and if he succeeds in this effort the results, in my opinion, will be extremely interesting. Already lined up at the starting gate for the race which, as we have seen, M. Bataille is organizing, are: Messrs. Desnos, Leiris, Limbour, Masson, and Vitrac. We haven’t been able to figure out why M. Ribemont-Dessaignes, for exam- [183] ple, is not yet there. I maintain that it is extremely significant to see reunited all those whom a defect of one sort or another has removed from a given initial activity because there is a good possibility that all they have in common is their dissatisfaction. I am amused, moreover, to think that one cannot leave Surrealism without running into M. Bataille, so great is the truism that the dislike of discipline can only result in one’s submitting oneself anew to discipline.

In M. Bataille’s case, and this is no news to anyone, what we are witnessing is an obnoxious return to old antidialectical materialism, which this time is trying to force its way gratuitously through Freud. “Materialism,” he says, “direct interpretation, excluding all idealism, of raw phenomena, so as not to be considered as materialism in a state of senility, ought to be based immediately on economic and social phenomena.” Since “historical materialism” is not defined here (and indeed how could it be?), we are obliged to point out that from the philosophical point of view of expression it is vague, and that from the poetic point of view as to its novelty, it is worthless.

What is less uncertain is the use M. Bataille intends to make of a small number of specific ideas he has about which, considering what they are, it is a question of ascertaining whether they derive from medicine or from exorcism, for, insofar as “the appearance of the fly on the orator’s nose” is concerned (Georges Bataille, “Figure humaine,” Documents, No. 4), the ultimate argument against the “ego,” we all know the ridiculous Pascalian argument, which Lautréamont did justice to long ago: “The mind of the greatest man (underscore three times “the greatest man") is not so dependent that it is liable to be upset by the slightest din going on around him. It does not take the silence of a cannon to stop him from thinking. It does not take the noise of a weathervane, of [184] a pulley. The fly’s thought-processes are disturbed at present. A man is buzzing in its ears.” A man who is thinking, as well as on the mountain top, can land on the nose of a fly. The only reason we are going on at such length about flies is that M. Bataille loves flies. Not we: we love the miters of old evocators, the miters of pure linen to whose front point was affixed a blade of gold and upon which flies did not settle, because they had been purified to keep them away. M. Bataille’s misfortune is to reason: admittedly, he reasons like someone who “has a fly on his nose, “ which allies him more closely with the dead than with the living, but he does reason. He is trying, with the help of the tiny mechanism in him which is not completely out of order, to share his obsessions: this very fact proves that he cannot claim, no matter what he may say, to be opposed to any system, like an unthinking brute. What is paradoxical and embarrassing about M. Bataille’s case is that his phobia about “the idea,” as soon as he attempts to communicate it, can only take an ideological turn. A state of conscious deficiency, in a form tending to become generalized, the doctors would say. Here, in fact, is someone who propounds as a principle that “horror does not lead to any pathological complaisance and only plays the role of manure in the growth of plant life, manure whose odor is stifling no doubt but salutary for the plant.” Beneath its appearance of infinite banality, this idea is in itself dishonest or pathological (it remains to be proved that Lully, and Berkeley, and Hegel, and Rabbe, and Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, and Marx, and Lenin acted very specifically like pigs in the lives they led). It is to be noted that M. Bataille misuses adjectives with a passion: befouled, senile, rank, sordid, lewd, doddering, and that these words, far from serving him to disparage an unbearable state of affairs, are those through which his delight is most lyrically expressed. The “unnamable broom” to which Jarry refers having fallen into his plate, M. Bataille de- [185] clares that he is delighted. He who, for hours on end during the day, lets his librarian fingers wander over old and sometimes charming manuscripts (it is common knowledge that he exercises this profession at the Bibliothèque Nationale), at night wallows in impurities wherewith, in his image, he would like to see them covered: witness the Apocalypse de Saint-Sever to which he devoted an article in the second issue of Documents, an article which is the prototype of false testimony. Let the reader be so kind as to refer to the plate of the “Flood” reproduced in this same issue and tell me whether, objectively, “a jolly and unexpected feeling appears with the goat which is shown at the bottom of the page and with the raven whose beak is plunged into the meat”—here M. Bataille’s enthusiasm knows no bounds—“of a human head.” To endow various architectural elements with human features, as he does throughout this study and elsewhere, is again nothing other than a classic sign of psychasthenia. The fact of the matter is that M. Bataille is simply very tired, and when he makes the discovery, which for him is overwhelming, that “the inside of a rose does not correspond at all to its exterior beauty, and that if one tears off all the petals of the corolla, all that remains is a sordid looking tuft,” all he does is make me smile as I recall Alphonse Allais’ tale in which a sultan has so exhausted the subjects of amusement that, despairing of seeing him grow bored, his grand Vizier can think of nothing better to do than to bring him a very beautiful damsel who begins to dance, at first completely covered with veils, for him alone. She is so beautiful that the sultan orders her to drop one of her veils each time she stops dancing. No sooner is she naked than the sultan signals idly for her to be stripped: they quickly flay her [186] alive. It is none the less true that the rose, stripped of its petals, remains the rose and, moreover, in the story above, the dancing girl goes on dancing.

If anyone brings up as an argument the story about “the ambiguous gesture of the Marquis de Sade who, locked up with the insane, has the most beautiful roses brought to him in order to dip their petals in the liquid shit of a drainage ditch,” I shall reply by saying that, in order for the story to lose any of its extraordinary implications it would suffice that the gesture be done, not by a man who has spent twenty-seven years of his life in prison for his beliefs, but by a staid librarian. There is, in fact, every reason to believe that Sade, whose desire for moral and social independence is, in contrast to that of M. Bataille, irrelevant, merely wished by that gesture to attack the poetic idol, that conventional “virtue” which willy-nilly makes a flower—to the extent that anyone can offer it—the brilliant vehicle of the most noble as well as the most ignoble sentiments, all this in an effort to try to make the human mind get rid of its chains. Besides, it behooves us to reserve judgment about such a fact which, even if it is not completely apocryphal, would in no way harm the impeccable integrity of Sade’s life and thought, and the heroic need that was his to create an order of things which was not as it were dependent upon everything that had come before him.

Surrealism is less inclined than ever to dispense with this integrity, or to sit idly by while this person or that thinks he is free to abandon it, under the vague, the odious pretext that he has to live. We want nothing to do with this dole of “talents.” What we are asking is, we think, such as to bring about an acquiescence, an utter refusal, and not to indulge in words, to sustain erratic hopes. Does one [187] or does one not want to risk everything for the mere pleasure of perceiving in the distance, at the bottom of the crucible into which we propose to cast our slim resources, what is still left of our good reputation and our doubts, together pell-mell with the pretty, “sensitive” glassware, the radical notion of impotence and the foolishness of our so-called duties, the light that will cease to fail?

We submit that the Surrealist endeavor can only hope to be crowned with success if it is carried out under conditions of moral asepsis which very few people in this day and age are interested in hearing about. Without these conditions, it is, however, impossible to arrest the spread of this cancer of the mind which consists of thinking all too sadly that certain things “are,” while others, which well might be, “are not.” We have suggested that they must merge into each other, or very perceptibly impinge upon each other at their respective limits. It is a matter, not of remaining there at that point, but of not being able to do less than to strain desperately toward that limit.

Man, who would wrongly allow himself to be intimidated by a few monstrous historical failures, is still free to believe in his freedom. He is his own master, in spite of the old clouds which pass and his blind forces which encounter obstacles. Doesn’t he have any inkling of the brief beauty concealed and of the long and accessible beauty that can be revealed? Let him also look carefully for the key to love, which the poet claimed to have found: he has it. It is up to him and him alone to rise above the fleeting sentiment of living dangerously and of dying. Let him, in spite of any restrictions, use the avenging arm of the idea against the bestiality of all beings and of all things, and let him one day,, vanquished—but vanquished only if the world is the world—welcome the discharge of his sad rifles like a salvo fired in salute.

Original Notes

* But I expect people to ask me how one can bring about this occultation. Independently of the effort which consists in impairing this parasitical and “French” tendency which would like Surrealism, in its turn, to end with some songs, I think we would not be wasting our time by probing seriously into those sciences which for various reasons are today completely discredited. I am speaking of astrology, among the oldest of these sciences, metapsychics (especially as it concerns the study of cryptesthesia) among the modern. It is merely a question of approaching these sciences with a minimum of mistrust, and for that it suffices, in both cases, to have a precise—and positive—idea of the calculus of probabilities. The only thing is, we must never under any circumstances confide to anyone else the task of making this computation in our place. This said, I am of the opinion that we cannot remain indifferent to the question of knowing, for example, whether certain subjects are capable of reproducing a drawing placed in an opaque envelope and closed in the absence of the person who drew it and of anyone who might have any knowledge of it. In the course of various experiments conceived as “parlor games” whose value as entertainment, or even as recreation, does not to my mind in any way affect their importance: Surrealist texts obtained simultaneously by several people writing from such to such a time in the [179] same room, collaborative efforts intended to result in the creation of a unique sentence or drawing, only one of whose elements (subject, verb, or predicate adjective—head, belly, or legs) was supplied by each person (“Le cadavre exquis,” cf. La Revolution surréaliste, nos. 9 and 10; Variétés, June 1929), in the definition of something not given (“Le Dialogue en 1928,” cf. La Revolution surréaliste, no. 11), in the forecasting of events which would bring about some completely unsuspected situation (“Jeux surréalistes,” cf. Variétés, June 1929), etc., we think we have brought out into the open a strange possibility of thought, which is that of its pooling. The fact remains that very striking relationships are established in this manner, that remarkable analogies appear, that an inexplicable factor of irrefutability most often intervenes, and that, in a nutshell this is one of the most extra ordinary meeting grounds. But we are only at the stage of suggesting where it is. It is obvious, moreover, that in this area we would be making a foolish display of vanity by counting on our own resources, and nothing more. Aside from the demands of the calculus of probabilities, which in metapsychics is almost always out of proportion to the benefit that one can derive from the least allegation and which would reduce us, to start with, to waiting for our ranks to be swelled ten or a hundredfold, we must also reckon with the gift of dissociation and clairvoyance, which is especially poorly shared among people all of whom, unfortunately, are more or less impregnated with academic psychology. Nothing would be less useless in this connection than to try to “follow” certain subjects, taken both from the normal world and from the other, and to do so in an attitude which defies both the spirit of the sideshow and that of the doctor’s office, and is, in a word, the Surrealist attitude. The result of these observations ought to be set down in a naturalistic manner, obviously excluding any exterior poeticizing. I ask, once again, that we submit ourselves to the mediums who do exist, albeit no doubt in very small numbers, and that we subordinate our interest—which ought not to be overestimated—in what we are doing to the interest which the first of their messages offers. Praise be to hysteria, Aragon and I have said, and to [180] its train of young, naked women sliding along the roofs. The problem of woman is the most wonderful and disturbing problem there is in the world. And this is so precisely to the extent that the faith a noncorrupted man must be able to place, not only in the Revolution, but also in love, brings us back to it. I insist on this point, all the more so because this insistence is what seems to have hitherto garnered for me the greatest number of recriminations. Yes, I believe, I have always believed, that to give up love, whether or not it be done under some ideological pretext, is one of the few unatonable crimes that a man possessed of some degree of intelligence can commit in the course of his life. A certain man, who sees himself as a revolutionary, would like to convince us that love is impossible in a bourgeois society; some other pretends to devote himself to a cause more jealous than love itself; the truth is that almost no one has the courage to affront with open eyes the bright daylight of love in which the obsessive ideas of salvation and the damnation of the spirit blend and merge, for the supreme edification of man. Whosoever fails to remain in this respect in a state of expectation and perfect receptivity, how, I ask, can he speak humanly?

Recently I wrote, as an introduction to an inquiry carried out by la Révolution surréaliste:

“If any idea seems hitherto to have eluded all efforts to reduce it, to have resisted down to the present time even the most out-and-out pessimists, we think it is the idea of love, which is the only idea capable of reconciling any man, momentarily or not, with the idea of life.”

This word—“love”—which all sorts of practical jokers have strained their wits to subject to every generalization, every possible corruption (filial love, holy love, love of country, etc.), is used by us [181] here, it goes without saying, in its strictest sense, we are restoring it to its meaning which threatens a human being with total attachment, based upon the overwhelming awareness of the truth, of our truth, “in a soul and a body” which are the soul and body of that person. What we are referring to, in the course of this pursuit of the truth which is the basis of all meaningful activity, is the sudden abandonment of a system of more or less patient research for the help and on behalf of an evidence which our work has not produced and which, with such features on such and such a day, mysteriously became incarnate. What we have to say about it is, we hope, of a nature to dissuade the “pleasure” specialists from answering us, as well as the collectors of amorous adventures, the dashers after sensual delight (assuming they are inclined to disguise their mania lyrically), the scorners and “faith healers” of the so-called love madness, and the perpetual love-hypochondriacs.

It was indeed by others, and by them alone, that I have always hoped to make myself heard. More than ever—since what we are discussing here are the possibilities of occultation of Surrealism—I turn toward those who are not afraid to conceive of love as the site of ideal occultation of all thought. I say to them: there are real apparitions, but there is a mirror in the mind over which the vast majority of mankind could lean without seeing themselves. Odious control does not work all that well. The person you love lives. The language of revelation says certain words to itself, some of which are loud, [182] others soft, from several sides all at once. We must resign ourselves to learning it in snatches.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

When, on the other hand, we think of what is expressed astrologically in Surrealism of a very preponderant “Uranian” influence, how can one not wish to see, from the Surrealist viewpoint, a sincere critical work devoted to Uranus appear which would, in this respect, fill in the serious gap from the past. One may as well say that nothing has yet been undertaken in this sense. The astrological chart of Baudelaire, who was born under the remarkable astrological conjunction of Uranus and Neptune, thereby remains as it were un in terpre table. About the conjunction of Uranus with Saturn, which took place from 1896 to 1898 and occurs only once every forty five years-about this conjunction which presided at the time of Aragon’s birth, Eluard’s, and my own we know from Choisnard simply that, although it has not been the subject of any extensive astrological studies, “it would reasonably seem to signify a deep attachment to the sciences, an inquisitive interest in the mysterious, and a profound need to learn.” (Of course, Choisnard’s vocabulary is questionable.) “Who knows,” he adds, “whether the conjunction of Saturn with Uranus may not give birth to a new school in the realm of science? This relative position of the planets, properly placed in a horoscope, could correspond to the make-up of a man endowed with the qualities of reflection, sagacity, and independence, a man capable of becoming a first-class investigator.” These lines, taken from his work L’Influence astrale were written in 1893, and in 1925 Choisnard noted that his prediction seemed to be coming true. [back]

† In his Différence de la philosophie de la nature chez Democrite et Epicure, Marx tells us how, in every age, there thus come into being hair-philosophers, fingernail-philosophers, toenail-philosophers, excrement-philosophers, etc. [back]

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