“The crystal has not only an outer but an inner shape, two wholes of form. This double geometry, this double formation is, as it were, Notion and reality, soul and body.”
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
Lamy, Balakian and Clouston developed a common case for asserting that the alchemical aspect of the book is manifest in the transmutational quality of its imagery. All three are closely concerned with Breton’s heavy application of visual metaphors, which roll through the text and create a cascade of vivid imagery; for the most part emanating from the central image of the Rocher Percé, a sea-bound mass of rock that lies just off the Gaspé coast (Fig. 2 and Fig. 3, 1930). Lamy, Balakian and Clouston concur that it was specifically Breton’s underlying interest in alchemy that begat his aspiration to metamorphose the world through poetry in Arcanum 17.
Though well founded, this literary case does not seem to give an entirely sufficient account of the application of alchemy in Breton’s thought in 1944. The alchemy-as-poetry argument, long since familiar from Arthur Rimbaud’s Alchemy of the Word, which Breton had raised in the Second Manifesto in 1929, seems to oversimplify Surrealism’s investment in alchemy; not least in the context of 1944, by which time Breton had demonstrated an unremitting interest in alchemy over a period spanning twenty years. Leading on from Breton’s discussion of the crystal from ten years earlier, here I will consider more closely the broader significance of the Rocher Percé as the centrepiece of Arcanum 17, and rocks and agates in general as the ballast of Breton’s alchemical inquiry in the 1940s.
Breton likened the Rocher Percé to a ‘marvelous moonstone iceberg’: the mother of all crystals.27 To his mind, the enormous rock clearly existed within the same broad ‘geological’ lineage as the smaller items of his 1930s eulogy. With the Rocher Percé in Arcanum 17, however, he brought his geological eulogy palpably into the frame of alchemy. At one point in the text, for example, in the midst of one of the rolling visual metaphors that punctuate the narrative, Breton sees the rock’s ‘serpentine bands of quartz’ metamorphose into elephants’ trunks, before quickly ‘giving way to a thousand heralds carrying streamers who scatter in all directions’; and he attributes this shape-shifting to a ‘dazzling transmutation, which takes hold of the rock to the point of seeming to make up its whole substance’.28 Elsewhere in the book, after another torrent of imagery, Breton outspokenly calls upon certain ‘genies who secretly preside over this alchemy’.29
Breton could apparently see the Rocher Percé from his window whilst he was writing Arcanum 17.30 As the conflict raged in Europe across the Atlantic, the Rocher Percé stood on the eastern horizon as a beacon of hope when he awoke each morning to work on the text by the dawn light. Throughout the book, his interactions with the coastal rocks and cliffs on the Gaspé peninsula provide a therapeutic outlet for his worries and terrors about the war. Nowhere is this expressed more plainly than near the opening of the text, just after Breton’s account of his boat trip to the Rocher Percé and Bonaventure Island. As darkness descends over the cliffs, Breton slips into a nightmarish vision of being led into the blackness on a horse-drawn coach, when suddenly
the imaginary team is swallowed up by a fault as it opens, ever widening along the flank of the rock and, in a flash, it uncovers the tortured heart of old Europe feeding the long entrails of spilled blood. Somber Europe, just for a moment so far away. The vast red and rust clots are forming right in front of my eyes with stains of excremental gold among cascades of blue gun barrels and propellers. … And yet beneath this veil of ominous significance an entirely different one arises with the sun.31
Come sunrise, the rock has digested these terrible images, and now resembles the entire ‘edifice of human culture in the narrow intrication of the parts that make it up’:
Under this movable earth – the soil of that rock crowned with fir trees runs a subtle thread that can’t be broken … the entire foreseeable future of the human spirit rests on this complex and indivisible substratum. … Civilization, independent of the not unsolvable conflicts of interest that undermine it, is one , like this rock on whose summit sits man’s home.32
Klaus Theweleit has identified a prevalent tendency in German literature of the Second World War to invoke geological processes as threatening metaphors for revolution and violence.33 Upon first inspection, Arcanum 17 appears also to subscribe to this trend. But where Theweleit considered the explosive energy of volcanoes and seismic events as decidedly threatening images, Breton invoked the regularity of geological stratigraphy as one of reassurance. He found solace in the comparison between the neat patterns of geological time and the cyclical nature of history, which, through this analogy, was assured to fold itself over the asymmetric events of recent years and assume its regular structure once again. Breton’s was ultimately an anti-revolutionary metaphor, through which he was able to claw back the historical ground gained by the false revolution of Nazism.
Whilst Breton’s motivation for viewing the rocks in this cathartic capacity is clear enough, it is less clear how he came to designate the Rocher Percé, and the cliffs of Bonaventure Island across the bay, as the primary agents in the world’s metamorphosis: as though they were chips off the block of the Philosopher’s Stone itself. The appeal of a radical transmutation of the world is easy to appreciate in the context of the war, but Breton’s particular reasoning for associating this process with these coastal rocks is far from clear-cut.
A 1930 tourist guide to the Gaspé Peninsula gave the following detailed description of ‘the famous pierced rock’:
Percé Rock is no such grey pile as one may find among the striking sea ruins on the shores of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Orkneys or the Cornish coast. It is its brilliancy of color, even more than its huge size and remarkable shape, that appeals most to the tourist, particularly if he remains a day or so at Percé, and is thus given the opportunity of admiring the wondrous changes it undergoes under various conditions of light. Its walls are bathed in tints of purple-red, bright yellow and grey-blue, and those different hues vary in bright sunshine, under clouded skies or when a mist hangs over the sea. 34
Judging by Arcanum 17, Breton would have closely related to this account. Indeed, he was also mesmerised by the changing hues of the rock, which he described as an ‘assortment of geological beds rolled into plateaus and interrupted by tiers, … zones from pink to purple that balance others from periwinkle to ultramarine’.35 Crucially, however, he considered the rock’s apparently very real propensity for metamorphosis to be the direct result of its complex geological formation. He was once again interested in conceptualising geological process as a generative force – if not a kind of stream of thought in itself – resonant with spontaneous, or unconscious, thought processes. In these terms, Breton’s astounding visual reveries provoked by the Rocher Percé in Arcanum 17 were the result of a supernatural communion with the energised bulk of its geological structure, which seemed to conjure dream-like visions as readily as the random fire of synapses in a sleeping brain. This idea was hinted at elsewhere within Arcanum 17 where Breton described the ideological turnover of the mind, conversely, behaving not like rock but as ‘magma’, with an ‘incessant bubbling of dissident ideas, of fermenting ideas’.36 This is the kind of meditative scenario which Lamy briefly alluded to when she described the book as having developed out of certain ‘full moments, when the interpenetration of the physical and the mental put in check the dualism of perception and representation’; a scenario which she recognised was similar to the reflective communion sustained by the alchemist ‘working before his hearth’.37
Just as the alchemist looks to his reactants to undergo a philosophical epiphany, Breton sought to activate the miracle of pure unconscious thought in similar terms, by staring into the mirrored labyrinths of crystals and agates, and the metamorphosing geology of the Rocher Percé. He perceived that these rocks and stones actually performed at a phenomenological level like the materials of the alchemical experiment: by succumbing to these visual transmutations, and exposing him to new revelations.
There is testimony of Breton’s alchemical theory of geology from an unlikely source here in the work of the Alsation poet Yvan Goll: Breton’s old intellectual rival from the early 1920s who had once contested his ownership of the term ‘Surrealism’. A few years after Arcanum 17, in 1948, Goll published an epic poem entitled ‘Le Mythe de la Roche Percée’ (‘The Myth of the Pierced Rock’), which was illustrated with etchings by the surrealist painter Yves Tanguy. The poem consists of fifteen sections listed under roman numerals, with each section addressing a different aspect of the Rocher Percé. Over the course of the poem, the rock is variously characterised as ‘Rock born from the Egg of the Tempest’, ‘Living Rock’, ‘Precious Rock’, and described in numerous other guises.38 The poem’s allusions to alchemy are diverse. However, it is in section ten of the poem, where Goll addresses the Rocher Percé as the ‘Roche philosophale (Philosopher’s Rock)’, playing upon the French ‘Pierre philosophale (Philosopher’s Stone)’, that he elaborates upon its alchemical aspect in strikingly Bretonian terms:
Acid Rock imprisoning the crystal of liberty
Pour in our alembics your magnesias
Help us to vintage the wine of garnets
To cultivate the fields of siderite
Read aloud to us the Hebraic quartz
So we at last perceive
The petrified breath of God 39
Goll’s description of the rock’s ‘transfiguring’ power strongly resembles Breton’s own description of it, and the form of the crystal (‘the crystal of liberty’, ‘garnets’, ‘siderite’, ‘quartz’) is similarly integral to Goll’s rendering of the rock’s alchemical operation.
Goll had originally written the poem in 1946 on his own trip to the Gaspé Peninsula.40 And several months prior to this visit, he had been in close contact with Breton.41 Whilst living in New York Goll had established Hémisphères, and after meeting Breton in the spring of 1942 he invited him to contribute to the journal, which he subsequently did in the form of an essay on the Martiniquais poet Aimé Césaire in the double issue 2–3.42 Albert Ronsin has suggested that relations between the two writers remained tense and fraught at this time, as indicated by petty quarrels over editing and publishing detailed in their correspondence.43 According to Ronsin their relationship never truly improved, and he states that by the war’s end ‘the rupture is definitive’.44 That leads him to merely note the parallel eventuality of Breton’s trip to the Gaspé peninsula in August 1944 and Goll’s trip there in the summer of 1946.
However, it appears far from coincidental that both came to attribute the Rocher Percé with miraculous powers of transmutation in such a short space of time. Indeed, the correlation between Goll’s and Breton’s designations of the Rocher Percé as an alchemical wonder is remarkable, in that it seems to prove that Goll purposefully retraced Breton’s alchemical pilgrimage to the rock.
Although the wider occult dimensions of Goll’s writing were unquestionably developed independently of Breton in the early 1940s, his alchemical characterisation of the ‘craggy torso’ of the Rocher Percé specifically was clearly inspired by Arcanum 17, which had been published over a year before his trip to the Gaspé. Significantly, beyond its lavishing ode to the Rocher Percé, Goll’s poem stands as a first-hand witness to Breton’s alchemical theory of geology, and as a testimony of its wider appeal in the aftermath of the Second World War.
PAINTING IN AGATES AND CRYSTALS, 1944–1947
Breton’s notion of alchemical geology was clarified in another piece of writing from his stay on the Gaspé Peninsula during the summer and autumn of 1944. His article on the Chilean surrealist painter Roberto Matta known as ‘The Pearl is Marred in My Eyes…’ (1944) begins somewhat unexpectedly with Breton setting the scene on the pebblestrewn beach at Percé (the village neighbouring the Rocher Percé), with ‘the young and the old, the rich and the poor, all searching for the raw agates washed in by the tide’.45 Almost outweighing the emphasis on Matta’s painting, the essay constitutes a meditation on the agates of Percé. Writing from Canada, Breton would have been working without any access to Matta’s paintings, and it appears as though the short piece of art criticism provided an excuse for him to extend his geological enquiries. The enormous significance of the agates of Percé is outlined vividly by Breton:
[O]f the humble agates of Perce [sic.], what human skill or genius can succeed in showing me anything to match what passes between those rounded rhomboids agitated by an inner trembling that is segmented by the superposed curtains of their rainbow windows? The process contains both fusion and germination, balances and departures, it incorporates an understanding between cloud and star, we can see all the way back and all the way down, as man has always dreamed of doing. This may be a mere drop in the ocean, but nevertheless it leads directly to the hermetic concept of living fire, the philosopher’s fire. The secret of its attraction and its lasting quality surely lies in the fact that, under a great weight of shadow, the image of ‘universal sperm’ circulates through it, enhanced by its very multiplicity.46
The vision-inducing aspect of geological structures resurfaces here – in the agates’ ‘rainbow windows’ through which ‘we can see all the way back and all the way down’ – and this phenomenon is explicitly linked to alchemy. Within the agate Breton sees the ‘philosopher’s fire’ that is said to exist within the Philosopher’s Stone, and he relates this to its visual ‘multiplicity’. As with the Rocher Percé in Arcanum 17, Breton’s interest in the agates concerns the way in which their intricate geological structure is somehow predisposed to stimulate the automatic mental faculties of their beholder; and here, more plainly than anywhere previously in his writing, he acknowledges this geological communion as being parallel with the subject-object dualism of alchemy.
Breton concludes the essay by identifying Matta as ‘he who has plunged into the agate’, which is to say into the ‘philosopher’s fire’.47 Interestingly, when the essay was published in the 1945 re-edition of Breton’s 1928 book Surrealism and Painting, onto which it was appended, it was accompanied by a reproduction of Matta’s painting It Inundates (Fig. 4, 1943): an eerie space-scape of vortices, orbital lines, and what appear to be depictions of floating gemstones. The work was typical of Matta’s paintings of the early 1940s: characterised by an atmospheric recessional space, impossibly complicated by ghostly geometrical forms which push and pull foreground and background depth; a style made famous by canvases such as Black Virtue of 1943 and The Vertigo of Eros of 1944. Yet despite the otherworldly aesthetic of It Inundates, it was apparently the meteoritic stones specifically that caught Breton’s eye; amotif that was common to many of Matta’s other works from this period. In the context of Breton’s essay, this detail perfectly illustrated the link between Matta’s work and the supernatural agates of Percé.
For his own part, Matta had developed a pronounced interest in geology during the early years of the Second World War. Sabine Eckmann has relayed his sense of awe at the marvels of the American landscape and has quoted his recollections on this point:
When I arrived in the United States [in October 1939] I started talking about the earth. In these pictures I tried to show not landscape which is ‘scenery’ – a scene of the earth – but the earth as something terrific, burning, changing, transforming, flowing.48
It was similarly the earth’s ‘changing, transforming’ aspect that captured Matta’s imagination when he saw the volcanic topography of Mexico, when he visited the country in the summer of 1941. Elizabeth Goizueta writes that ‘[h]e saw the pulsating, volatile earth as analogous to the inner world to which he was lending form’.49 Perhaps on account of these self-confessed geological dimensions to Matta’s work, the faceted, crystalline space of It Inundates, which was in turn studded with gemlike forms, came to take on the alchemical significance of the agates of Percé in Breton’s eyes: wherein the subject-object dialectic resolves itself as thought process falls into sync with the spontaneous processes of mineralogical formation. In these terms, Matta’s work appears to have represented a veritable cross section of the Philosopher’s Stone; an association which seems to be evinced by Breton’s decision to commission Matta to illustrate Arcanum 17 in 1944. The alchemical dimension of this essay was openly acknowledged within the wider surrealist circle, where surrealists Robert Amadou and Robert Kanters republished it as the final text in their Anthologie littéraire de l’occultisme (Literary Anthology of Occultism) of 1950.
In a separate article, written in 1947, Breton identified crystalline ‘grottoes’ of ‘stalactite-stalagmite formations’ in the works of the Romanian surrealist, Jacques Hérold (Fig. 5, 1942).50 Here he returned once again to reflect upon the occult art of painting in crystals. It is widely acknowledged within the scholarship on Hérold that the crystal represented a key theme in his work during the 1940s and beyond. In a chapter entitled ‘The Age of Crystal’ spanning the years 1945-1947 in his monograph on Hérold, Sarane Alexandrian has described how this was the period during which he ‘deepened his mythology of crystallisation’, devising countless figures ‘with flat faces and divisions corresponding to the symmetrical parts of crystals, which have axes, planes and centres’.51 Breton’s 1947 article was written as the foreword to Hérold’s first solo exhibition, which opened at Christian Zervos’s gallery Cahiers d’art on the rue du Dragon, Paris, in October that year, and which comprised crystalline works of precisely Alexandrian’s description. What is of specific interest here, however, given the existing geological dimension to this body of work, is the way in which Breton recruited Hérold’s oeuvre to his own alchemically charged theory of the crystal.
The essay opens with a portentous quote from the eighteenth-century German romantic poet Novalis: ‘The air in the atmosphere has a crystalline quality’.52 But then Breton goes on to draw a somewhat unexpected comparison between Hérold’s work and the nineteenth-century pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat, which seems to go against the fact of their considerable aesthetic differences and the distinct lack of pointillist technique in Hérold’s canvases. However, it soon becomes apparent that Breton was invoking the ‘point’ of pointillism as a structuring metaphor for the article, rather than a tight formal hook between the artists’ respective works. Breton quotes from Hérold’s own essay entitled ‘Points-feu’ (‘Fire Points’), which readily provides an alternative application of the term ‘point’ for his painting.
In ‘Points-feu’ Hérold gives a mystical definition of painting where he conceives of its task as being to ‘crystalli[se] the object’, and to navigate certain ‘points of fire’ which compose the human body, ‘from which crystals radiate’.53 These references immediately set Breton down the path of his own previous researches into the crystal derived from Hegel:
In the case of Hérold, it is clear that the accent is upon magnetism . In the words of Hegel, ‘magnetism achieves its gratification in the crystal despite the fact that it is no longer contained within it as magnetism’. And he instructs us further that ‘the determinations of space should reproduce themselves in the determinations of the crystalline figure’.54
These comments once again derive from the Philosophy of Nature, and more specifically from Hegel’s formulation of ‘Shape’ in his section on the ‘Physics of the Total Individuality’.55 Reinvigorating his previous discussion from 1934, Breton conceives of Hérold’s works as crafted points of access into the dialectical subject-object interface, familiar from alchemy. Observing Hérold’s own philosophical outlook on the act of painting, Breton sees Hérold’s brushstroke not merely as a painterly ‘point’ but rather as ‘the apex of a polyhedral angle which is always haunted by the prospect of complete transparency’: or in other words, as a crystalline microstructure.56 Consequently, he concludes that Hérold’s painting goes beyond simply leaving an impression upon the retina and proposes to fulfil the function of a nerve-ending whose connection with the other surrounding ‘points of fire’ allows us to make our way back to the centre of its (our) own desire.57
This notion of seeing our own desire refracted in the crystalline marks of Hérold’s painting, via an interpenetrative contact between painting and ‘nerve-ending’, is reminiscent of the dialectically collapsed subject-object dualism of alchemy. And indeed, Breton ends this passage by declaring that ‘the crystal possesses the key to every liberty’, which sounds uncannily like the reputation of the Philosopher’s Stone among the alchemists.58 Through this crystalline analogy, Breton was ultimately able to transfer the prospect of a salvational transmutation of the world to surrealist painting at the outset of the post-war era.
THE LANGUAGE OF STONES, 1957
In 1957 Breton embarked upon his most extensive exploration of surrealist geology to date with a richly illustrated essay entitled ‘Langue des pierres’ (‘Language of Stones’), which was published in the autumn edition of the journal Le Surréalisme, même (1957). In the essay he offered a brief account of the mystical reception of stones throughout history, from Novalis to the Renaissance magician and polymath Paracelsus; onto which he grafted his own distinctive theory of the occult application of rocks, gems and crystals, giving an impassioned justification of his now decades-old obsession. He relates how he had experienced the beach at Percé as an ‘enchanted garden’, and describes how he had been enraptured more recently by agates discovered on the banks of the Lot river in the south of France (Fig. 6).59 Searching for agates in the Lot river had in fact become an obsessive hobby for Breton during his summers spent at Saint-Cirq-Lapopie in the 1950s. Mark Polizzotti has cited Robert Benayoun recalling how Breton and his friends would scour the agates for ‘signs, colors, transparencies, and sometimes figures’.60 And in ‘Langue des pierres’ Breton himself described his obstinate ‘pursuit of glimmers and signs’; an exercise which he ascribed to the sphere of ‘visionary mineralogy’.61
Over the course of the text Breton proceeds to elaborate on the ‘visionary’ aspect of his geological encounters. Relatively early in the essay, he refers to ‘a series of mysterious exchanges’ between man and gemstone, occurring as if ‘by osmosis’.62 For an explanation of this supernatural phenomenon, he falls back on the mystical council of Novalis, whose own writing was steeped in mineralogical metaphors (Novalis had studied mining, and subsequently entered the family business at the Saxon Salten Mines) and had written that ‘any transparent body … is in a superior state, and seems to have a sort of consciousness’.63 His application of Novalis seems to evince his Hegelian inclinations once again, where the philosopher had similarly conceived of the ordering principle of ‘magnetism’ as comparable to a kind of conscious logic or ‘thought’ latent in nature.64 Yet as communicated in the essay, this supposition about ‘consciousness’ residing in crystals seems to have been less to do with a notion of transparent gems and crystals moonlighting as sentient beings, than to do with them reflecting the pattern of their observer’s thought. As Breton elaborates:
The internal ribbons of the agate, with their constrictions followed by brusque deviations which suggest knots from place to place, at the instant where for the first time we cast our eye over them, seem to mirror in an elective space our own ‘nervous influx’.65
This is an unequivocal manifestation of the alchemical phenomenological scenario recurring through Breton’s geological musings, whereby a kind of introspective epiphany is perceived to be attainable through the subject’s close encounter with the agate. Indeed, it appears to follow directly on from his notion of an immediate contact between Hérold’s crystalline brushwork and the observer’s ‘nerve-endings’.
At the opening of his final paragraph Breton quotes from the Italian-born artist and writer known pseudonymously as Lotus de Païni, whom he also referred to in 1957 in L’Art magique (Magical Art), his collaborative study with Gérard Legrand, as ‘the great occultist’:66
Lotus de Païni maintains that the phase of Intuition historically opens to the human species at the moment ‘when the soul penetrates as far as the bottom of the stone and definitively acquires the powers of The stone – she repeats – conferred to the race of man the high privilege of pain and dignity’.67
Breton seems to have felt a fundamental, visceral connection with stones. Yet for him the stone was not merely formative in the history of the human race as a spiritual and social symbol, such as de Païni had envisaged through her theory of totemism, let alone as the conduit of technological progress. Rather, he beheld the stone as the great territory of philosophy itself. In the stone Breton saw both the kernel and endpoint of humanity’s philosophical venture: from the flint and its spark as the first flicker of epistemological activity at the dawn of man; to the esoteric visions of the crystal, the agate, the gemstone, and even the opaque face of the Rocher Percé, as the lens onto the unfathomable depths of the unconscious. Crucially, by this point Breton has gone beyond using the crystal, agate and gemstone as metaphors for thought processes, and conceived of them as portals offering occult insight and operating on the level of a kind of crystallomancy.
In his final analysis, Breton concluded that ‘stones – above all hard stones – continue to speak to those who want to hear them. To each of them, they hold a language in its measure: through that which [man] knows they instruct him of that which he longs to know’.68 This notion of stones paving the path to higher knowledge is undoubtedly intentionally evocative of the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone: sought by the alchemists as the catalyst of transmutation, the elixir of life, and the key to true wisdom; and otherwise interpreted by Breton here as the prosaic vessel of psychical transfiguration and surrealist wisdom on the rocky terrain of everyday life.
In 1965, one year before Breton’s death, the French-Canadian surrealist Jean Benoît created one of his trademark ‘emboîtages (encasings)’ for Arcanum 17 (Fig. 7, 1965). On one side of the case sits the image of a hand reaching towards a faceted moonstone, with both components of this image set within a life-size palm done in metal relief-work. The composition was undoubtedly devised in acknowledgement of Breton’s characterisation of the Rocher Percé as a ‘marvelous moonstone iceberg’. However, it also seems to relate this geological aspect of Breton’s text to the legend of the Philosopher’s Stone. Benoît’s image appears to be based upon the Hand of the Mysteries (Fig. 8): an esoteric symbol associated with alchemy, Freemasonry and hermetic philosophy in general. In Benoît’s adaptation of it, however, the moonstone replaces all other symbolic keys to wisdom, and is depicted as yielding to a moment of divine contact with the outstretched hand of humankind. Benoît seems to have been parodying the famous touching hands in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam scene (1508-1512) in the Sistine Chapel; thus fulfilling the Hand of the Mysteries’ reputation as the symbol of alchemical apotheosis, by replacing the hand of god with the Stone.
Breton’s reputation as an avid amateur geologist has never been in doubt. His passion for finding and collecting rocks and stones of all description was openly recognised during his lifetime within the surrealist circle; as testified by Benoît’s emboîtage, and perhaps even more poignantly by the poet and artist Claude Tarnaud’s dedication of his 1962 poem ‘L’Agate’ (‘The Agate)’ to Breton.69 What I have presented over the course of this article, however, is a chain of literary and visual evidence that reveals the extent to which this interest went far beyond simply admiring rocks and stones as aesthetic or haptic curiosities. To the contrary, the material raised here demonstrates how these geological specimens can be seen as the mainstay of Breton’s personal inquiries into alchemy over a period spanning several decades. In its subtly nuanced imagery, Benoît’s emboîtage provides a befitting homage not only to
Arcanum 17 but to Breton’s wider philosophy of ‘visionary mineralogy’, wherein a geological structure had long sat at the centre of his thought: a structure which, ever since he had gazed into the shimmering vaults of the crystal, had seemed to him to present itself to the ‘vertiginous’ explorations of the ‘magician’.70
- André Breton, ‘Second Manifesto’ (1930), Manifestoes of Surrealism, Helen R. Lane and Richard Seaver trans. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), 174–178.
- M. E. Warlick, Max Ernst and Alchemy: A Magician in Search of Myth (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001); Susan Aberth, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art (Aldershot, UK: Lund Humphries, 2004).
- André Breton, The Lost Steps (1924), Mark Polizzotti trans. (Lincoln, NE and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 59.
- See Theodore Ziolkowski, The Alchemist in Literature: From Dante to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 3–6.
- I will be quoting from the English version of ‘La Beauté sera convulsive’ as translated from L’Amour fou in André Breton, Mad Love, Mary Ann Caws trans. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 11.
- Breton (1987), 11.
- Breton (1987), 11, 10.
- Jean-Pierre Cauvin and Mary Ann Caws eds., Poems of André Breton: A Bilingual Anthology (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), xxii, 99.
- Jean-Michel Rabaté, ‘Breton’s Post- Hegelian Modernism’, in James Swearing and Joanne Cutting-Grey eds., Extreme Beauty: Aesthetics, Politics, Death (London: A&C Black, 2003), 25.
- Rabaté, 25.
- Breton (1987), 11.
- Breton (1972), 123–124.
- Paul F. Cowlan ed., Tabula Smaragdina: The Words of the Secret Things of Hermes Trismegistus, An Introduction to the Emerald Tablet (Kenton: Alembic, 2008), 4.
- Joseph L. Henderson and Dyane N. Sherwood, Transformation of the Psyche: The Symbolic Alchemy of the Splendor Solis (London & New York: Routledge, 2003), 3, 7.
- Henderson & Sherwood, 1; Gavin Parkinson, The Duchamp Book (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), 89–90.
- Henderson & Sherwood, 1.
- See Ziolkowski, 154.
- Glenn Alexander Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2001), 206.
- Michel Carrouges, André Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism, Maura Prendergast trans. (University: University of Alabama Press, 1974), 58.
- Breton (1987), 11.
- Breton (1987), 96-97.
- Kurt Seligmann and Yvan Goll eds., ‘Magie et Poésie’ (Numéro Spécial), Hémisphères, 2, 5 (Spring 1945).
- Victoria Clouston, The Poetics of Hermeticism: André Breton’s Shift Towards the Occult During the War Years (Phd Dissertation, Oxford Brookes University, 2012), 5.
- Clouston, 10.
- Anna Balakian, introduction to André Breton, Arcanum 17, Zack Rogow trans. (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2004), 8–9.
- Suzanne Lamy, André Breton: hermétisme et poésie dans Arcane 17 (Montréal: Presses de L’Université de Montréal, 1977), 138: ‘Si le code alchimique n’est pas la seule clé capable de pénétrer Arcane 17, il est sûrement le domaine par lequel le narrateur s’est en quelque sorte trouvé’.
- Breton (2004), 76.
- Breton (2004), 73–4, my emphasis.
- Breton (2004), 104.
- Breton (2004), 55.
- Breton (2004), 36–37.
- Breton (2004), 37–38.
- Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies: Vol. 1, Women, Floods, Bodies, History, Stephen Conway trans. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987), 238–242.
- The Gaspé Peninsula: History, Legends, Resources, Attractions (Quebec: Department of Highways and Mines, 1930), 171, 2.
- Breton (2004), 37.
- Breton (2004), 101.
- Lamy, 121: ‘Comme l’alchimiste retiré du monde et oeuvrant devant son foyer, l’athanor, le poète à l’extremité de la Gaspésie, sent sa pensé poétique se recharger. L’expérience est fondamentale pour tous deux: aucune des grandes proses de Breton n’a été érigée autrement que sur des moments pleins, quand la compénétration du physique et du mental met en échec le dualisme de la perception et de la representation’.
- Yvan Goll, ‘The Myth of the Pierced Rock’ (1948), in Francis Carmody ed., Four Poems of the Occult, Louise Bogan trans. (Kentfield, CA: Allen Press, 1962).
- Yvan Goll, Le Mythe de la Roche Percée (Paris: Éditions Hémisphères, 1948), 20.
- Von Vivien Perkins, Yvan Goll: An Iconographical Study of His Poetry (Bonn: H. Bouvier u. Co. Verlag, 1970), 6.
- See Jeremy Stubbs, ‘Goll versus Breton: the Battle for Surrealism’, in Eric Robertson and Robert Vilain eds., Yvan Goll-Claire Goll: Texts and Contexts (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 1997), 69–71.
- Albert Ronsin, ‘Yvan Goll et André Breton: la querelle littéraire à propos de surréalisme’, Europe: revue littéraire mensuelle, 899 (March 2004), 199.
- Ronsin, ‘Yvan Goll et André Breton’, 201–205.
- Ronsin, 205: ‘La rupture est définitive. Un an plus tard (décembre 1945) Breton quitte New York pour Port-au-Prince (Haïti) et rentre à Paris en mars 1946. Goll, malade, est à Paris début juin 1947, mais il ne guérira jamais de Breton’.
- André Breton, ‘The Pearl is Marred in My Eyes’ (1944), Surrealism and Painting, Simon Watson Taylor trans. (London: Macdonald, 1972), 183.
- Breton (1944), 184.
- Breton (1944), 184.
- Sabine Eckmann, ‘Roberto Sebastián Matta Echaurren in New York, 1939–45’, in Stephanie Barron ed., Exiles and Emigrés: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum, 1997), 178.
- Elizabeth T. Goizueta, ‘The Artist as Poet: Symbiosis between Narrative and Art in the Work of Matta’, in Elizabeth T. Goizueta ed., Matta: Making the Invisible Visible (Boston: McMullen Museum of Art, 2004), 15–28, 22.
- André Breton, ‘Jacques Hérold’ (1947) in Surrealism and Painting, Simon Watson Taylor trans. (London: Macdonald, 1972), 205.
- Sarane Alexandrian, Jacques Hérold (Paris: Fall Edition, 1995), 84–85: ‘En cette période où Hérold peignit davantage, il approfondit sa mythologie de la cristallisation dans l’atmosphère stimulante de la renaissance du surréalisme. Il étudia même planches scientifiques pour établir le cristollomorphisme de son univers. Ses personnages sont créés avec des faces planes et des clivages correspondant aux éléments de symétrie des cristaux, qui ont des axes, des plans et des centres. … Il emploie le système cristallin quadratique, ou hexagonal ou orthorhombique, selon des besoins graphiques’.
- Breton (1947), 202.
- Breton (1947), 204.
- Breton (1947), 205.
- Hegel, 160–178.
- Breton (1947), 205.
- Breton (1947), 205.
- Breton (1947), 205.
- André Breton, ‘Langue des Pierres’, Le Surréalisme, même, 3 (Autumn, 1957), 64: ‘jardin enchanté’.
- Breton (1957), 64: Mark Polizzotti, Revolution of the Mind: the Life of André Breton (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 580.
- Breton (1957), 64: ‘Il n’est pas douteux que l’obstination dans la poursuite des lueurs et signes, dont s’entretient la “mineralogy visionnaire”, agisse sur l’esprit à la manière d’un stupéfiant’.
- Breton (1957), 64: ‘Entre lui et nous, comme par osmose, vont s’opérer précipitamment, par la voie analogique, une série d’échanges mystérieux’.
- Breton (1957), 68: ‘Tout corps transparent, juge Novalis, est dans un état supérieur, et semble avoir une sorte de conscience’.
- Hegel, 165.
- Breton (1957), 68: ‘Les rubans internes de l’agate, avec leur rétrécissements suivis de brusques déviations qui suggérent des noeuds de place en place, à l’instant où pour la première fois nous les parcourons du regard, nous semblent mirer dans un space électif notre propre “influx nerveux”’.
- André Breton and Gérard Legrand, L’Art magique (1957) (Paris: Éditions Phébus & Éditions Adam Biro, 1991), 100.
- Breton (1957), 69: ‘Lotus de Païni soutient que la phase de l’Intuition s’ouvre historiquement à l’espèce humaine de l’instant “où l’âme pénètre jusqu’au fond de la pierre et en acquiert définitivement les puissances du MOI. La pierre – dit elle encore – conféra à la race des hommes le haut privilege de la douleur et de la dignité”’.
- Breton (1957), 69: ‘Les pierres – par excellence les pierres dures – continuent à parler à ceux qui veulent bien les entendre. A chacun d’eux, elles tiennent un langage à sa mesure: à travers ce qu’il sait ells l’instruisent de ce qu’il aspire à savoir’.
- Claude Tarnaud, ‘L’Agate’, La Bréche: action surréaliste, 2 (May 1962), 27.
- Breton (2004), 70.