The Invention of Politics in the European Avant-Garde (1906-1940)

By Sascha Bru; Gunther Martens | Go to book overview

Uncanny Polemics and Ambivalent Reappraisals.
The French debate on Surrealism
on the Eve of the Cold War

Steven Engels

Surrealism and partisan politics have always been closely intertwined, not only because of the well-known fact that some of the most prominent figures of the movement affiliated to the French Communist Party (PCF) during the thirties and forties, but also – and this is less well-known – because the political potential of Surrealism was readily recognised by various French intellectuals outside the Surrealist movement and the PCF. In this contribution, I will examine the intellectual debate on Surrealism during the decade following the Second World War by means of a critical reading of Jean-Paul Sartre's What is Literature?, Claude Mauriac's André Breton and Maurice Blanchot's "Reflections on Surrealism". My focus will be on the way in which these three representatives of the post-war French intelligentsia try to come to terms with Surrealism and its significance as a broad cultural movement with political ambitions. As I will show, they do so in very different ways, each of them evaluating the Surrealist community's artistic production and political activities in terms of their own aesthetic categories and ideological agendas. Despite their obvious differences in opinion, however, at least two of the critics involved in the debate on Surrealism share the same problematical assumptions about the function of literature in modern society. In the end, these reveal more about the polemical intellectual climate in France on the eve of the Cold War than about the meaning of Surrealism itself.

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