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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Arcanum 17 (1944) by Andre Breton

Andre Breton, founder of the surrealism movement and author of Arcanum 17.

Book Review
Arcanum 17 (1944)
by Andre Breton

  French poet, author and thinker Andre Breton is the person who receives formal credit for inventing surrealism in its original sense.  He lived and worked in Paris, France  EXCEPT for when he fled France during World War II for the majestic vistas of the Canadian Atlantic sea coast.  This made him suspect in the eyes of the people who followed in his footsteps- people who were doing so decades later.  He wrote the surrealism manifesto in the mid 1920s, and I can personally testify that the appearance of surrealism or even characters who were even aware of surrealism in any meaningful way is zero up to and including the mid 1940s.  Like many ideas that are slow to be accepted by western aesthetic culture, Surrealism was originally one of a number of indigenous movements that were active from Russia to Spain that played with existing narrative and artistic convention in the early 20th century, but it has indubitably emerged as a victor, relegating would-be competitors like Dadaism, Expressionism, Constructivism and Futurism to the proverbial dust bin of history.

  Today, the appellation of "surreal" is practically a synonym for "weird" or "strange" when in fact the original concept was more along the lines of trying to derive artistic inspiration from dreams.   In this way, Surrealism in its original sense is deeply linked to the advances by Freud and Jung in the area of psychology/psychiatry around the same time.

  One rule of them when looking for "real" surrealist literature is that it should be by a European author, in the 20th century and it shouldn't make any sense, because the whole point of surrealism is to conjure imagery from dreams that don't make any conventional sense.  That's surrealism, you interpret the symbols.

  Along those lines, Arcanum 17, in the words of the Kirkus Review, "combines poetry, memoir, philosophy, a journal, social commentary (criticizing France and the rest of Europe from the safe harbor of America and Canada), a cautionary tale, mysticism (verging on automatic writing), and a political treatise. "

   Sooooo....yeah.  Is this one of one thousand and one books you need to read before you die?  Arguably not.  Why not make people read Freud or Jung?  Or maybe just rest on Nadja, written by Breton in the late 1920s and inarguably a novel compared to Arcanum 17.

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