A NOTE ON AUTOMATISM / Franklin Rosemont


The total incomprehension of surrealism in the United States—an incomprehension reinforced and perpetuated by the ceaseless obfuscatory activity of ‘experts’ (to cite only the worst: Balakian, Caws, Fowlie, Gershman and Rubin) as well as the reprehensible publicitary exercises of various former surrealists and impostors—finds perhaps its most emphatic expression in the reams of unrestrained idiocy spewed forth by numerous commentators on the subject of psychic automatism. Customarily and mistakenly presumed to be a hoax, an experiment that failed, a momentary delusion, a sensational gimmick or an ‘article of faith,’ automatism constitutes, on the contrary, not only the historical point of departure for surrealism but one of its invariable first principles. “The surrealism in a work,” Andre Breton wrote in 1941 with characteristic precision, “is in direct proportion to the efforts the artist has made to embrace the whole psycho-physical field, of which consciousness is only a small fraction. In those unfathomable depths there prevails, according to Freud, a total absence of contradiction, a release from the emotional fetters caused by repression, a lack of temporality, and the substitution of external reality by psychic reality obedient to the pleasure principle and no other. Automatism leads us straight to these regions (1).”

Thus the substance of the original (1924) definition of surrealism-a remarkably expansive definition, as is demonstrated by the subsequent development of the surrealist movement- remains ineffaceable: “Pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express, verbally, in writing or by other means, the real functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control exercised by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations (2).”

An invaluable, exemplary, irreplaceable instrument of exploration and discovery, the practice of automatism has unfortunately also been the victim of countless inexcusable misapplications. Just as the psychoanalytic situation, for example, can become seriously mutilated by a too obtrusive therapeutic intention (3), so surrealist automatism becomes unrecognizably deformed if it is encumbered by any trace of literary ambition. In the English language, it hardly needs to be said, the automatic experience has only rarely been attempted, and almost never in a sustained, coherent and serious manner, in which the disinterested quest for poetic knowledge must necessarily take precedence over all other considerations. Meanwhile, attention has focused on the productions of Joyce and the ‘stream of consciousness’ school, the technique of ‘spontaneous prose,’ Ginsberg’s insipid litanies, the rationalized asthma of Charles Olson, the more recent ‘cut up’ experiments of Burroughs and others, ‘concretism,’ etc., all of which are, of course, merely literary regressions to various pre-surrealist stages of development- ‘tics,’ in Lautreamont’s expression.

It must be noted that the automatic revelation absolutely defies vicarious pursuit; one must plumb these depths for oneself, at one’s own risk, to attain that indispensable verification which assumes the value of criteria for the future. “An examination of the psychoanalytic literature,“writes Eissler,”will show that man’s creativity still remains essentially an enigma (4).” Surrealism continues to aim at clearing up this enigma and approaches its solution from within, beginning by dispelling the superstition of ‘talent’ which creates artificial barriers and blocks the road forward.

What is crucial is that the words and images released under the automatic constellation refuse to return to their cages. Rejecting, completely, the etiquette of ‘literature,’ surrealist research is distinct, too, from the psychoanalytic interrogation of the past (one may note, for example, the absence of the classical transference situation in poetic activity. Surrealism insists on the urgent significance of the inviolable moment soaring on dark wings of flaming magnesium, the flashes of this unsparing magic lamp which skims the latent grammar of its quotidian shadows, and, plunging to the very source of dreams, restores to us the oracular voice, “human freedom reviving itself in the perfect identification of man and his language (5),” ineradicable glimpses of that which will be.


August 1971

  1. “Genesis and Perspective of Surrealism, “ in Art of This Century (Guggenheim, New York, 1942).
  2. Andre Breton, Manifesto of Surrealism.
  3. K.R. Eissler, Medical Orthodoxy and the Future of Psychoanalysis (international Universities Press, New York, 1965), Chapter 3.
  4. Ibid, P. 14
  5. Andre Breton, Entretiens (Gallimard, Paris, 1952), P. 127.

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