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Mark Polizzotti An Advertisement
for Heaven


Emboldened by their Dada apprenticeship, the Surrealists were not shy about publicizing their views. From the splash of Tzara’s surprise Paris debut at the First Friday of Littérature in 1920 to the group’s presence on the barricades in May ’68, these boys liked shouting it from the rooftops and taking it to the streets—the streets that, said Breton, “could test like nowhere else the winds of possibility.” In the fall of 1924, as Breton and a knot of likeminded malcontents tried to give a name to the (as they termed it) “vague” current that had been preoccupying them for several years, the question of publicity became paramount. Surrealism, whatever else one might say about it, was also a product, a concept to be marketed to as many receptive consumers as it could reach. And, as with most products, its launch was threatened by an assortment of obstacles: limited media access, the public’s resistance to novelty, even a rival creation—specifically, the Apollinaire-tinted brand of Surrealism promoted by Yvan Goll and Paul Dermée. In this light, the flurry of activity that accompanied the movement’s premiere, including the broadside A Corpse and the first issue of La Révolution surréaliste, stands as nothing so much as a vast advertising campaign, with the Manifesto of Surrealism as its lead press release. Like Tzara before him, who had pushed Dada to the front of the avant-garde pack just after the war, Breton intended both to spread the word far and wide and to knock the competition on its ear. Breton’s works abound in references to the attention-grabbing artifacts and slogans of the modern world, as purveyors of the marvelous: the huge billboard for Mazda light bulbs (not simply because of its consonance with Nadja), the “modern mannequin” evoked in the Manifesto, and the humble painted signs for wood and coal are only a few examples. Since the beginning of his poetic adulthood, he had looked for ways to break language out of the cloister into which it had been shut by literary preciousness, and he saw advertising as one such means. “What is it that poetry and art do?” he had written to Louis Aragon in April 1919. “They extol. Extolling is also the aim of advertising.” And that same month: “Naturally, we must take the word advertising in the widest sense…Christianity is an advertisement for heaven.” Like dream condensation, Isidore Ducasse’s reworking of old maxims, or the surprise detours of automatic writing, thebest advertisements reconfigure the familiar into something recognizable but different, revivifying both language and its object and making them new. Breton later remarked that he’d wanted to compose “an advertisement for heaven” (in the Manifesto he added: “or for hell”) that would be “striking enough, convincing enough” to make everyone commit suicide.

MARK POLIZZOTTI is the author of Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton, and has translated works by Breton, René Daumal, Jean Echenoz, Maurice Roche, Marguerite Duras and others. His other books include Lautréamont Nomad, The New Life: Poems, the collaborative novel S., and a study of Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados for the British Film Institute. A monograph on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited will be published later this year.

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