Was André Breton justifying the pursuit of mad love – or was he trying to say something else entirely?
As with many of my collected quotes, I have no clue where this might have originated – a flowery Pinterest post in Helvetica with a vague romanticising of toxic relationships? Who knows.
André Breton (allegedly)
"My wish is that you may be loved to the point of madness."
But first, the author. André Robert Breton was a French writer and poet, who lived from 1896 to 1966. He is best known for his involvement (and co-creation) of the surrealist movement – which he might as well be, since he did write the first “Surrealist Manifesto“.
So it seems very likely that he did end up saying the alleged quote – but in what context? Was it an artistic interpretation of romantic love, where connection is torture and poor mental health is passion? Or perhaps it could be read as a threat – in a similar vein of wishing someone “to live an interesting life” – a double-edged sword?
It’s actually… neither, and for the first time here at the Hunting Inspiration series, I had no trouble finding a source for this. Google pointed me steadily to the anthology “What is Surrealism?”, first published in 1978. The quote appears in the chapter “Mad Love (Excerpts)”; the first excerpt deals with the notion of convulsive beauty (as one does), whilst the second excerpt is a letter from Breton to his daughter Aube, only 8 months old at that time.
I found the letter very touching, so here it is reproduced as it appears in the book “What is Surrealism? Selected Writings by André Breton”, by Franklin Rosemont and André Breton, Pluto Press Ltd., 1978, pp. 164-168. And my apologies to Mr. Breton for doubting his intentions, clouded as my mind was by the toxicity of uncited inspirational quotes. This letter is really something special.
Dear Chipnut of Munkhazel:
In the lovely spring of 1952 you will have just turned sixteen, and perhaps you will be tempted to open this book, the title of which, I like to believe, will be wafted to you euphonically by the wind that bends the hawthorn… All dreams, all hopes, all illusions, will be dancing night and day, I trust, by the light of your curly locks. And I, doubtless, shall no longer be here; I who would desire to be here only to see you. Mysterious, radiant horsemen will come dashing by at dusk, along the banks of ever-changing streams. A young girl clad in filmy, sea-green veils will glide somnambulistically underneath tall archways, lighted by the flicker of a single devotional lamp. But the spirits in the reeds, the tiny catkins that pretend to sleep in rings, the smart toy pistol shot through with the word ‘Ball’, will keep you from taking these scenes too tragically. Whatever may be your lot, whether never fair enough, or otherwise, I can’t tell, you will take joy in living, in expecting all of love. Whatever may happen between now and the moment you see this letter – and apparently it is the unsupposable that is destined to happen – let me believe that you will then be ready to incarnate this eternal force of woman, the only one to which I have ever made obeisance. Whether you will have just closed a school desk on a highly fantastic crow-blue world, or whether you already cast a solar silhouette, except for the flower at your waist, on the wall of a factory – I am far from certain as to your future – let me believe that these words, ‘mad love’, will someday be the only ones that correspond to your delirium.
They will not keep their promise, since all they will do will be to enlighten you as to the mystery of your birth. For a long time I had thought that the height of folly was to give life. In any case, I felt resentful towards those who had given it to me. It may be that on certain days you will feel resentful towards me. In fact, that is why I have chosen to see you at sixteen, when you will be incapable of feeling resentment. What am I saying? To see you, no; to try to see you through your eyes, to see myself through your eyes.
My wee little child, with your barely eight months and your continual smile, you who are made like both coral and pearls, you will understand then that all element of chance was strictly excluded from your coming; that this event took place at the very hour when it was supposed to take place, neither earlier nor later; and that no shadow hovered about your little reed cradle. Even poverty, the rather intense poverty which had been and remains mine, called a truce for a few days. As it happens, I was not opposed to this poverty; I had agreed to pay the price for my non-slavery to life, to settle for the right I had assumed once and for all, to express no other ideas than my own. There were not so many of us… Poverty passed at a distance, very much embellished and almost justified; somewhat as in what has been termed, for a certain painter who was one of your very first friends, the blue period. It seemed to be the almost inevitable consequence of my refusal to accept conditions which nearly all the others, in whatever camp, had accepted. Though you may not have had time to learn to dread it, remember that this poverty was but the other side of the miraculous coin of our existence. Without it the ‘Night of the Sunflower’ would have been less radiant.
Less radiant because love would not then have had to face all it did face; because it would not have had to count entirely on itself, in order to triumph. This was perhaps a great piece of imprudence, but it was just this imprudence which was the brightest jewel in the case. Beyond this imprudence there remained no alternative to committing an even greater one: that of causing you to be born, imprudence whose perfumed breath you are. It was necessary at least to stretch a magic cord from one to the other, to stretch it so that it would break over a precipice, in order that beauty might pluck you like some impossible aerial flower, with no aid other than her own balancing rod. May you one day believe that you are this flower, that you were born entirely without contact with the unfortunately unsterile soil of what are commonly referred to as ‘the affairs of men’. For you spring from the mere shimmer of that which, rather tardily, was for me the goal of poetry, to which I had devoted my youth and which I have continued to serve, scorning all that was not poetry. You appeared there as if by enchantment, and if you ever detect a trace of sadness in these words which, for the first time, I am addressing to you alone, say to yourself that this enchantment continues and always will continue to be identified with you, and that it is great enough to surmount every heartbreak. Always and for a long time, those two solemn enemy expressions which confront each other whenever love is mentioned, never exchanged more blinding stabs than they did today, over my head, in a sky that was all blue, like your eyes, with their whites that are still so blue. Of these two words, the one that wears my colours, even though its star may be waning now, even though it be destined to lose, is always. Always, as in the vows young girls ask for. Always, as on the white sand of time and, thanks to the instrument which serves to count it (but, so far, only fascinates you and leaves you famished), reduced to an endless, fine stream of milk issuing from a glass breast. Despite everything, I shall have maintained that this always is the master key. That which I have once loved, whether I have kept it or not,
I shall continue to love always. Since you will be called upon to suffer, too, I wanted to explain certain things to you before reaching the end of this book. I mentioned earlier the ‘sublime peak’ of a mountain. There was never any question of my settling permanently on this peak. In fact, from then on, it would have ceased to be sublime, and I should have ceased to be a man. However, although unable to settle there, at least I never have gone so far from it as to lose sight of it, or to be unable to point it out to others. I chose to be the guide, in consequence of which I forced myself to be worthy of that power which, in the direction of eternal love, made me see and granted me the rarer privilege of making others see. I never have been unworthy of this trust;
I never have ceased to identify the flesh of the being I love with the snow on the heights at sunrise. Of love, I have wished only to know the hours of triumph, which I now clasp in a necklace about your throat. But I am sure you will understand the weakness of my attachment to the last pearl of all, the black one; you will understand what ultimate hope of conjuration I have placed on it. I do not deny that love has a crow to pick with life. But I insist that love must win and that, to this end, it must have risen to such poetic consciousness of itself that every necessarily hostile encounter will melt in the flame of its own glory.
At least this will have been at all times my greatest hope, a hope in no way diminished by my occasional incapacity to prove myself worthy. And should it ever have mingled with another, I shall make sure that the latter touches you no less closely. Since I wanted your existence to be conscious of the following raison d’être, namely, that I had asked it of what for me, in all the force of the word, was beauty, in all the force of the word, love – the name I gave you at the head of this letter does not represent for me, in its acrogrammatical form, merely a charming account of your present aspect, since long after I invented it for you, I realised that the words which composed it earlier in this book had served to characterise the very aspect which love had taken for me (this must be what we mean by resemblance). I also wanted everything that I hope for from human becoming, everything which, in my opinion, is worth a collective rather than an individual effort, to cease to be a formal mode of thinking, even the noblest, in order for it to confront this reality, this living becoming, that is yourself. What I mean is that I feared, at one time in my life, that I should be deprived of the necessary contact, the human contact, with what will come after me. After me – this idea keeps getting lost but turns up again, marvellously, through a certain sleight of hand which you possess like (and, for me, not like) all little children. From the very first day I was filled with admiration for your hand. It hovered about all I had tried to construct intellectually, making it seem almost inane. What a mad thing is that little hand, and how I pity those who have not had the opportunity of bejewelling the loveliest page of a book with its starry form! Even a flower seems suddenly poor. One has only to look at this hand to know that man makes ridiculous use of what he pretends to know. All he understands about this hand is that, from every standpoint, it has been fashioned as best it could be. This blind aspiration towards the best would suffice to justify love as I conceive it; that is, absolute love, as being the only principle of physical and moral selection capable of guaranteeing the nonvanity of human presence and human witness.
I thought of all this somewhat feverishly, in September 1936, alone with you in my famous, uninhabitable, rock salt house. I thought of it between reading the newspapers that recounted, somewhat mendaciously, the episodes of the Spanish civil war; newspapers behind which you thought I disappeared in order to play hide and seek with you. And that, too, was true, because in those moments the unconscious and the conscious, in your form and in mine, existed side by side in complete duality. They were in entire ignorance of each other and yet were able to communicate at will through the single powerful thread that was the exchange of glances between us. Indeed, my life hung at that moment by a thread. The temptation was great to go and offer it to those who, without possible error or distinction of tendencies, wanted, at any price, to finish with the old ‘order’ founded on the cult of that abject trinity: family, fatherland and religion. And yet you held me back by that thread which is the thread of happiness, as it appears in the woof of unhappiness itself. In you I loved all the children of the Spanish militia, like those I had seen running about naked in the pepper groves of Santa Cruz, on Tenerife Island. May the sacrifice of so many lives one day make happy human beings of them! And yet I did not feel that I had the courage to expose you, as well as myself, to help make this come about.
Above all, the idea of family should be buried deep in the ground! If I have loved in you the accomplishment of a natural necessity, it is in exact proportion to the degree that this necessity, in your person, was one with what was for me human, logical necessity; and the reconciliation of these two necessities has always seemed to me to be the only marvellous thing within the grasp of man, to be the only possible chance he has to escape from the meanness of his estate. You progressed from nonbeing to being by virtue of one of those agreements that are the only ones to which I care to lend an ear. You were posited as possible, as certain, at the moment when, in a love that was deeply self-confident, a man and a woman desired you.
Leave you! It is too important that I should someday hear you reply, in all innocence, to those insidious questions which grown people put to children: ‘What do we think with? Do we suffer? How did we learn the sun s name? Where does the night come from?’ As if they knew themselves ! And since you are for me the human creature in its perfect authenticity, in all likelihood you will have to teach me these things.
My wish is that you may be loved to the point of madness.
This article is part of the Hunting Inspiration series, where I take one “inspirational” quote floating around on the Internet uncredited and try to “hunt down” the original source and reflect on whether knowing the original context in any way changes the meaning of that singular quote. Read the rest of the series here.