What is the art historical significance of alchemical metaphors in the writings of the poet and founder of Surrealism André Breton? The surrealist group’s fascination with alchemy is now well publicised in a growing body of scholarship on ‘occult Surrealism’. Breton’s call for ‘the veritable occultation’ of the surrealist movement in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1930) has received considerable attention, as has the preceding declaration within the text that there exists a ‘remarkable analogy… between the surrealist efforts and those of the alchemists’.1 During the last twenty-five years alone, there have been numerous pieces of research into ‘occult Surrealism’, and publications on the topic of surrealist alchemy specifically by the likes of M. E. Warlick and Susan Aberth.2 However, so far, little attention has been paid to Breton’s personal conception of alchemy, despite frequent citations of his ‘official’ statements on the group’s occult orientation as proof of other surrealists’ interest in alchemical discourse. He had referred to alchemy as early as 1924, the year of the first Manifesto of Surrealism, where he declared in an essay on the poet and playwright Aloysius Bertrand that ‘the text hasn’t yet been written that would keep us from seeking the philosopher’s stone’.3 And it was this geological dimension of alchemy, specifically, which he continued to explore over the rest of his life. This article charts Breton’s growing interest in alchemy through the layers of crystals, rocks, agates and stones that accumulated in his writings over the course of his career, and which seem to have resonated for him on some level with the legend of the Philosopher’s Stone – as the fabled catalyst of alchemical transmutation.4
Eulogy to the Crystal, 1934–1937
Tasked with fixing the theme of Breton’s 1934 Minotaure article, ‘La Beauté sera convulsive’ (‘Beauty Will Be Convulsive’), one would have to say that it is geological, first and foremost. The essay sits under the banner of a photograph of cubic Halite crystals taken by Brassaï, which is captioned with a line taken from Breton’s text that reads: ‘[t]he house where I live, my life, what I write’.5 On the following page of the article there is a reproduction of an automatic drawing whose lines resemble the delicate, feathered fractures of a crystal, and further into the essay there are two more of Brassaï’s photographs of crystals (alongside corals). The visual architecture of the essay constitutes a veritable crystal palace, and this setting is reflected in the text, where Breton gives his ‘eulogy to crystal’.6
Mid-way through the essay, the discussion trickles through a cave in Vaucluse, then passes into a cave near Montpellier, before Breton arrives at the conclusion that ‘[t]here could be no higher artistic teaching than that of the crystal’. The crystal is introduced here as a manifestation of his term ‘fixed-explosive’; one of the three categories for his central concept of ‘convulsive beauty’, alongside ‘veiled-erotic’ and ‘magic-circumstantial’. In the case of the ‘fixed-explosive’, Breton argues that convulsive beauty arises through an ‘affirm[ation] of the reciprocal relations linking the object seen in its motion and in its repose’.7 In these terms, his concept of the ‘fixed-explosive’ describes the resolution of the dialectical pair of movement and stasis; something which he observes in the crystal, wherein the energy of the geological processes that have formed it come to betray the silent, ice-like repose of something frozen in time.
The figure of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel sits closely behind Breton’s dialectical pairing ‘fixed-explosive’. Yet the influence of Hegel also goes beyond this basic model of a dialectical contradiction in Breton’s text. Jean-Pierre Cauvin, for example, has noted how to Breton’s mind ‘the hardness and transparency of crystal correspond to that “moment where the mobile and unceasing activity of magnetism achieves complete repose”, a definition borrowed from Hegel and quoted by Breton’ (in a letter sent to André Rolland in 1932).8 Observing Breton’s reference to the Hegelian concept of the ‘figure’ in ‘La Beauté sera convulsive’, Jean-Michel Rabaté notes that the essay finds its source specifically in Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature (1817).9 Without going into too much detail on Hegel’s study at this stage, Rabaté’s comments suffice to explain how it informed Breton’s argument here. Quoting from Breton’s 1934 essay, he writes:
‘The house where I live, my life, what I write, I dream that all that might appear from far off like these cubes of rock salt look close up’. Such a trope ‘crystallizes’ a deep structural homology between ‘the world’ and the ‘subject’ … Hegel explains the process of differentiation and accounts for it by means of the term of ‘figure’. A ‘figure’ is the mechanism of individuality through which form manifests itself in a material way.10
Rabaté’s analysis is of great interest for the way in which it demonstrates how, via Hegel, Breton perceived crystallisation to be the single most vital structural principle in the natural world. Yet it also reveals how Breton went on, in more idiosyncratic terms, to conceive of the crystal as being somehow correlative to the thinking subject. Rabaté does not labour this point through an exhaustive explanation of the Minotaure essay, but I refer his comments directly back to the text in order to clarify this aspect of Breton’s argument. The ‘homology’ of which Rabaté speaks appears to be established in the paragraph where Breton introduces his ‘eulogy to crystal’, where he writes: ‘I have never stopped advocating creation, spontaneous action, insofar as the crystal, nonperfectible by definition, is the perfect example of it’.11 Here Breton conceived of the crystal as embodying a wondrous creative force, manifesting the ‘spontaneous [geological] action’ that produces its complex mineral structure (Fig. 1, 1935). To his eyes, this seemingly miraculous generative process underpinning the crystal mirrored the unconscious processes structuring the human mind, thus rendering the crystal the ideal template of surrealist ‘automatic’ creation. Breton’s Hegelian figuration of the crystal effectively introduces another dialectical pair to his essay: the subject-object relationship. Breton had famously begun the Second Manifesto by stating his aspirations for surrealist research to encapsulate the mediating point in between a set of dialectical oppositions:
Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions. Now, search as one may one will never find any other motivating force in the activities of the Surrealists than the hope of finding and fixing this point.12
This mysterious ‘point’ that Breton envisaged appears to be of the order of alchemy, which was primed towards the dialectical resolution of opposites according to the celebrated maxim ‘that which is above is like to that which is below’, as stated in The Emerald Tablet, which is appreciated by many as the founding treatise on alchemy (it was purportedly written by the legendary figure Hermes Trisemegistus, namesake of Hermeticism)’.13 Within the purview of Surrealism, Breton wished to push dialectical thinking to a threshold point at which reality itself would come crashing down, imploding under the pressure of its ingrained ‘surreality’. In the midst of this dialectical overhaul of established reality, the physical world represented by the ‘object’ posed one of the greatest and most urgent challenges of all for Surrealism: as the material fact upon which the scientific conditions of reality were hung, and the stifling counterpoint to the alternative reality of the dreaming ‘subject’ that Surrealism championed.
Going into the 1930s, the subject-object dialectic became of central concern to surrealist discourse, and it seems to have been in the specific context of this theoretical development that the conceptual value of alchemy came to be appreciated by the surrealists. In their introduction to the Splendor Solis, a famous sixteenth-century illuminated alchemical manuscript in the British Library’s Harley Collection, Joseph Henderson and Dyane Sherwood explain how this subject-object dialectic has traditionally been at the heart of alchemical discourse. Whereas at a practical level the alchemists might be seen to have merely ‘concerned themselves specifically with the transmutation of base metals into gold and with the search for the philosopher’s stone’, they go on to relay how in truth these activities only represent half of the story:
[For, historically,] the art of alchemy was most often what today we might categorize as both external and internal, embodied and spiritual, practical and abstract. The language of alchemy is one that combines sensory observations of materials and processes with a language for the phenomenology of inner experience. The concrete and the symbolic are interfused, eluding clear distinction.14
Within the context of the twentieth century, Henderson and Sherwood explain, this hypothesis of the material-mental dualism of alchemy gained currency through the ‘analytical psychology’ of Carl Gustav Jung, in which he posited that ‘the alchemists, while trying to understand the unknown in matter, would project onto matter the images and categories of the unconscious’ (Jung would go on to write no less than three major studies on this topic).15 Most intriguingly, however, Henderson and Sherwood point out that ‘the link between analytical psychology and alchemy began in 1928, when Richard Wilhelm sent Jung his translation of a Chinese Taoist text, The Secret of the Golden Flower’.16 This observation puts Jung’s breakthrough in analytical psychology within a year of the surrealists’ first significant forays into alchemical discourse in 1929, around the time of the Second Manifesto. Although these developments within Surrealism seem to have derived from entirely separate sources – notably contemporary French publications on alchemy such as Grillot de Givry’s Le Musée des sorciers, mages et alchimistes (Museum of Sorcerers, Magicians and Alchemists) (1929), and Fulcanelli’s Les Demeures philosophales (The Dwellings of the Philosophers) (1929) – this dating places Surrealism within the context of a much wider movement towards the intellectual re-evaluation of alchemy in Europe at this moment in the late 1920s.17
In terms not all that different from Jungian notions of alchemical dualism, alchemy seems to have successfully resolved a middleground within the framework of the subject-object dialectic that came to preoccupy surrealist thought during the 1930s: where the fate of the object (the chemical reactants) was tied to the thinking subject’s forays into occult philosophy, and, conversely, the subject’s quest for wisdom was bound to the transmutation of the reactants in the alchemical experiment. In this light, there are also notable projections towards the work of alchemy bound up within Breton’s argument in ‘La Beauté sera convulsive’. In his eulogy to the crystal, he envisaged a (typically surrealist) threshold point at which the mind appears crystalline and the crystal appears sensitive; where material world and thinking subject become intertwined. For all intents and purposes, Breton was interested here in the physical processes of complex mineral formation as something correlative to the mental processes of thought. And this manner in which he came to conceive of the crystal as reflection and extension of the creative thought process is reminiscent of the immersive experience of the alchemical experiment, which has historically been described as having a ‘dual physical and psychical nature’.18
In his early assessment of occult Surrealism in André Breton et les données fondamentales du surréalisme (André Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism) (1950), among some more controversial points, Michel Carrouges offered the insightful description of the alchemical project as manifesting ‘an interior metamorphosis through an exterior transmutation’; a phrase which neatly frames the subject-object dialectic being emphasised here.19 It is in this context that Breton appears to have initially registered the resonances between alchemy and geological process, where he perceived that the ‘spontaneous action’ made manifest in the crystal’s creation could similarly engage and reflect unconscious thought.20 Like the alchemical experiment, Breton’s ‘eulogy of the crystal’ considered a scenario in which mind and matter become wholly interpenetrative. In yielding a resolution to the subject-object dialectic, the crystal thus presented itself as the surrealist object par excellence during the 1930s.
Whereas alchemy was never mentioned by name in ‘La Beauté sera convulsive’, when Breton later integrated the article into his book Mad Love (1937), his new, heavily expanded text supplied an explicit discussion of alchemy within the context of a more recent geological encounter. In 1935, Breton had travelled to the volcanic island of Tenerife for the International Exhibition of Surrealism held in Santa Cruz, and it was the majestic sight of the dormant Mount Teide looming over the island that inspired him to write a new eulogy to the volcano in Mad Love, a eulogy that was this time infused with alchemical imagery:
Wonderful Teide, take my life! … It is my heart beating in your inviolable depths, in this blinding rose garden of mathematical folly where you mysteriously ready your power. May your arteries, traversed with beautiful, vibrant black blood, guide me at length towards everything I have to know, to love, toward everything that must make a plume at the end of my fingers! Let my thoughts speak through you … From you all roads to the infinite, all springs, all the lightbeams leap, D[a]riai- Noor and Koh-i-Noor, lovely crest of a single diamond trembling! On the side of the abyss, made of philosopher’s stone, the starry castle opens.21
Breton’s references to being embodied by and thinking through the volcano (notions already familiar from ‘La Beauté sera convulsive’) anticipate his dazzling image of Mount Teide as a giant diamond made of Philosopher’s Stone, which beholds the path to wisdom, and opens onto the infinite. The natural processes underpinning the volcano, figured here by the ‘vibrant black blood’ coursing through its ‘arteries’, once again draw Breton to the idea of unconsciously falling in sync with the automatic rhythms of this geological superstructure. Meanwhile, the latent energy of the dormant volcano seems to have provided him with the basis of the idea of its future transmutation; an event which he envisaged, in characteristically utopian terms, as its crystallisation into a radiant diamond.
Whereas Breton’s colourful invocations of the alchemical magic of crystals and volcanoes from the mid-late 1930s might at first seem like fleeting metaphors, the recurrence of similar metaphors in his subsequent writings suggests their position within a wider theory of geological alchemy. Within the space of a few years of his comments in Mad Love, this theory would come to lend itself to the pressing challenge of rejuvenating the war-torn continents of the world during the Second World War.
The Marvellous Moonstone Iceberg, 1944
During the 1940s the surrealist group publically aligned its activities with an array of occult traditions, including alchemy, astrology, the Tarot, and the Kabbala. Many of these lines of inquiry were developed over the course of the surrealists’ exile in New York, when they escaped the conflict in Europe. The 1945 ‘Magic and Poetry’ special edition of the New York francophone literary journal Hémisphères (Hemispheres), for example, is typical of the increasingly ‘occulted’ intellectual circle the surrealist group were moving in during the war years.22 Other signalling examples of this wartime turn to the occult in surrealist discourse include: Pierre Mabille’s extensive survey of myth, magic and the fantastic in literature, Mirror of the Marvelous (1940); the group’s collaborative design for a surrealist card deck inspired by the Tarot, devised whilst most of the group were living at the Villa Air Bel near Marseille (1940–1941); and Benjamin Péret’s essay ‘Magic: the Flesh and Blood of Poetry’, published in the June 1943 edition of the American journal View. Out of the chaos of the Second World War, the notion of magic emerged as something that advocated individual empowerment in terms set against the all-consuming advance of the war’s political machinery. After their definitive break with the Parti communiste français in the mid-1930s, the surrealists turned to magic, rather than party politics, as a means of combatting an increasingly corrupt and dangerous world order. Within this context, alchemy became established within surrealist discourse as one of several ‘occult’ methods of transforming the world.
Breton was at the centre of these discussions. Victoria Clouston has commented that ‘during the years of World War 2 … Breton demonstrates a pronounced shift towards the occult’, becoming immersed in what she calls ‘the poetics of hermeticism’, which amounted to ‘a definition of poetry as a form of alchemy’.23 For Clouston, he reached ‘the climax of his hermetic quest’ with the book Arcanum 17, which he wrote between the summer and autumn of 1944, at the peak of the Second World War, whilst staying on the Gaspé peninsula on Canada’s eastern seaboard with his new wife Elisa Bindorff.24 Clouston’s suggestion that there was a culmination of alchemical themes in Breton’s writing at this time finds support in other studies on Arcanum 17, such as Anna Balakian’s introduction to the text, and Suzanne Lamy’s book André Breton: hermétisme et poésie dans Arcane 17 (André Breton: Hermeticism and Poetry in Arcanum 17). Balakian has suggested that in Arcanum 17 Breton was desperately seeking ‘a meaning’ which he ultimately found within alchemy, ‘which seemed to provide power for the mind to transform anguish into ecstasy’.25 Lamy’s analysis of the text is also in general agreement, if less sensationalist in its diagnosis, where she concluded that ‘[i]f the alchemical code is not the only key capable of penetrating Arcanum 17, it is certainly the domain by which the narrator is in some sense found’.26