As its name suggests, surrealism wanted to transcend a little bit the reality, but not too much. That is, surrealism wanted to establish itself, modestly, just a little « above » the common reality.
André Breton, who coined the word, had considered for a moment the word « supernaturalism« , but it was too close to the adjective « supernatural », and its metaphysical connotations: then it was not okay at all. The Surrealists weren’t going to let us think that they were interested to deal with the back worlds and supernatural entities…
In this temporary elevation above reality, the surrealist poet only seeks to occupy unexpected points of view, to produce symbols, to collect images — not falling from above, but spontaneously rising from below: surrealism really is a materialism.
Arcane 17 by André Breton gives some indications on the surrealist way to penetrate the « great secret »:
« This was for me the very key to this revelation I spoke of and that I could only owe to you alone, on the threshold of this last winter. In the icy street, I see you moulded on a shiver, your eyes alone exposed. With the collar high up, the scarf tightened with your hand over your mouth, you were the very image of the secret, one of nature’s great secrets when it was revealed, and in your eyes at the end of a storm you could see a very pale rainbow rising. »
We cannot believe for a moment that this so-called ‘revelation’ belongs to the anecdote, the banal memory, the autobiographical emotion. This would not be worthy of a ‘pope’ like Breton (even if he were to be a surreal one).
« The very image of the secret », it is obvious, cannot just be the figure of a beloved woman, – such as a Jacqueline Lamba, so revealed, so nude in her nautical dance, or an Elisa Claro, so naked in her mystery.
« The very image of the secret » is really a figure of ‘revelation’, of the « great secrets of nature at the moment when it is revealed ».
What is this « great secret »? What is this image « molded on a shiver »?
In a letter dated March 8, 1944, Breton confided: « I am thinking of writing a book around Arcanum 17 (the Star, Eternal Youth, Isis, the myth of the Resurrection, etc.) taking as a model a lady I love and who, unfortunately, is currently in Santiago. »
The « great secret » is therefore that of Arcanum 17, the metaphor of the Star, the (surreal) vision of the resurrection, the intuition of Isis, a dream of dawn and rainbow.
No woman of remembrance, no spectre of the future, no « godmother of God », no « ambassador of saltpetre » or « of the white curve on a black background that we call thought » …
Then who is this Star?
Who is this Isis?
Isis is here, as already in ancient Egypt, a metaphor (‘surreal’ or ‘supernatural’?) of Wisdom, even if Breton, an automatic poet, a Marxist and a Freudian, was probably voluntarily overtaken by his writing process.
Only the eyes of the « revelation » are exposed. Everything else is wrapped, hidden – like Wisdom, all of it « vision ».
The scarf is tightened from hand to mouth, – like Wisdom, with a rare speech.
His gaze is between the storm and the dawn. Wisdom remains between the past and the future.
The « icy » street is a world without warmth, slippery, without foundation; only Wisdom announces the end of the storm, a saving sign (the very pale rainbow).
Three quarters of a century earlier, Verlaine had already used the adjective « icy ».
« In the old lonely and icy park
Two forms have just passed.
Their eyes are dead and their lips are soft,
And you can barely hear their words. »
Two past shapes, dead-eyed. Two indistinct spectra – unreal.
The « icy street », the revelation « molded on a shiver » – as for them, surreal.
When will the « last winter » end?
When will appear the miracle of heat and light that « pale eyes » provide?
The poet recognized the sign of mystery, he goes back to the source.
« This mysterious sign, which I knew only to you, presides over a kind of exciting questioning that gives at the same time its answer and brings me to the very source of the spiritual life. (…) This key radiates such a light that one begins to worship the very fire in which it was forged. »
Breton, surrealist and materialistic, thus brought to « the very source of the spiritual life »!
Breton, immersed in the light of the mind!
Breton, fire worshipper!
Breton, a Zoroaster from the left bank!
Breton, declaiming the Zend, in a bistro in the Vieux Portof Marseilles!
The church of Saint Germain des Prés was built on the site of an old temple of Isis, just like in Marseilles, the Cathedral of the Major.
Always the poet must conclude – with precise words.
« The virtue among all singular that emerges from your being and that, without hesitation, I found myself referred to by these words: « Eternal youth », before having recognized their scope. »
Breton spoke too quickly. He concedes it a posteriori. « Eternal youth », the « virtue among all singular » is still a metaphor, imperfect and surreal.
Carried away by the automatic momentum, Breton finally recognized its scope, and its essence.
The « Eternal youth », this Isis, shouts loudly: Breton is only an automatic prophet of Wisdom.