Sunday, June 10, 2007


Since the beginning of the movement, insults have been a means of expression to which surrealists have had frequent recourse, cheerfully flouting the generally accepted rules of “good conduct” and “proper debate”. If they were not the first to conduct themselves in this manner – some dadaists, including Arthur Cravan, were past masters of it – it is undoubtedly they who have systematised this form of behaviour and given it a precise meaning: that of an ideological weapon, a violence justified by the revolutionary character of the project which the movement has included in its agenda. According to Breton himself, the surrealist practice of the insult has been equally influenced by a “good part of revolutionary literature” in the Marxist tradition, including certain works by Marx and Lenin (The Poverty of Philosophy, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism). Furthermore, in its irrationality the insult is connected to the proceedings which the surrealists have launched against rationalist humanism, as well as to their wish to abolish the barrier separating feeling from conceptual thought.

Apart from articles, polemical texts, letters and, especially, tracts – a form particularly favoured by surrealists – their taste for insults is equally demonstrated in some fundamental texts (Breton, Second Surrealist Manifesto, 1930; Aragon, Treatise on Style, 1928), as well as in several poetic works, of which Benjamin Peret’s I Don’t Eat That Bread (1932) remains the finest specimen. Whatever the context, moreover, the effectiveness of the insult, for the surrealists, always comes from the skill with which they deploy the resources of metaphor. As for their choice of target, it is certainly not limited to external enemies: insults are frequently employed with the same violence in controversies among surrealists themselves, such as during the crisis at the end of the 1920s, the documents from which, notably the Second Surrealist Manifesto and the second pamphlet A Corpse, contain attacks which rank among the most virulent in the whole history of the movement.

Petr Kral

in Adam Biro & René Passeron (1982) eds, Dictionnaire général du Surréalisme et de ses environs, Presses Universitaires de France

For a Spanish version of this article, click here.

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