Surrealist Automatism

Breton, Surrealism and Automatic Writing

The freewriting exercises described in creative writing guidebooks reach back to the foundation of Surrealism: automatic writing.

In the first Surrealist Manifesto of 1924 André Breton founded the movement on the principle of automatism; a way of thinking and creating that circumvents the rational, deliberate, and conscious control of the mind.

He was drawing on at least two major sources: the long tradition of poetic inspiration, and the recent findings of Sigmund Freud.

Romantic Possession and the Watchers at the Gate

Romantic ideas about creativity (particularly attached to Romantic poets such as Keats and Shelley) depict the poet in a state of frenzied possession, as if controlled by the Muse.  In this state the critical, common-sense part or function of the mind has been suspended.  This is what the German dramatist and poet Friedrich Schiller wrote in a letter of 1788:

“…it hinders the creative work of the mind if the intellect examines too closely the ideas already pouring in, as it were, at the gates….In the case of the creative mind, it seems to me, the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude. You worthy critics, or whatever you may call yourselves, are ashamed or afraid of the momentary and passing madness which is found in all real creators, the longer or shorter duration of which distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. Hence your complaints of unfruitfulness, for you reject too soon and discriminate too severely.”

Similarly, Freud’s technique of free association (pioneered by his women patients) worked on the principle of non-censorship (in theory at least!) and his subjects were encouraged to speak in an illogical, free-wheeling stream of associations peculiar to their own mind, personality and life-history.

Freud’s Legacy

Breton used Freud’s free association technique first on traumatized soldiers in the First World War, and then in his own writing:

“Completely occupied as I still was with Freud at that time, and familiar as I was with his methods of examination which I had some slight occasion to use on some patients during the war, I resolved to obtain from myself what we were trying to obtain from them, namely, a monologue spoken as rapidly as possible without any intervention on the part of the critical faculties, a monologue consequently unencumbered by the slightest inhibition and which was, as closely as possible, akin to spoken thought” (Surrealist Manifesto, 1924).

A Serious Business

For Breton and the Surrealists, this way of accessing the unconscious (a claim that Freud disputed as impossible, by the way) was the key to everything, including social revolution and truly inspired art.  Breton’s aim was not a modest one.  His ambition for Surrealism and automatism was nothing less than the overthrow of reality.

Most people assume that Surrealism is basically silliness or absurdity (the kind of whimsy found in Monty Python’s Flying Circus graphics) but the Surrealists wanted to challenge the dominance of rationality and their aims were political.  Surrealism means a higher realism, not an escape into a sort of wacky dream-world.

Try it for Yourself

Here are some instructions on how to do automatic writing:

“Sit at a table with pen and paper; put yourself in a ‘receptive’ frame of mind, and start writing. Continue writing without thinking of what is appearing beneath your pen. Write as fast as you can. If, for some reason, the flow stops, leave a space and immediately begin again by writing down the first letter of the next sentence. Choose this letter at random before you begin, for instance, a ‘t’, and always begin this new sentence with a ‘t’. Although in the purest version of automatism nothing is ‘corrected’ or re-written the unexpected material produced by this method can be used as the basis for further composition. What is crucial is the unpremeditated free association that creates the basic text” (Surrealist Games, edited by Mel Gooding, 1991).

 

Breton published a book of automatic writing with his friend Philippe Soupault entitled The Magnetic Fields in 1920 saying that they had “decided to blacken some paper, with a praiseworthy disdain for what might result from a literary point of view” (Surrealist Manifesto, 1924).

Why not try blackening some paper now?  The Surrealist revolution is not yet complete!

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