Surrealist Poetry, Deconstruction and Quantum Physics

In exploring current thinking on quantum physics and deconstruction, Dr Arthur Broomfield asks us to consider whether Surrealist Poetry has finally arrived to claim its time?

In this era of renewed interest in quantum physics it is timely to look again at Andre Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism through the lens of quantum physics, and because of his thinking on presence, through the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, the architect of Deconstruction. Could it be that, after a premature birth, Surrealist poetry has arrived to claim its time? Could now be the moment when science and poetry join forces to open new insights into the understanding of what it is to be?  First let’s look at the key, proven tenet of quantum physics’ theory and then go on to study Derrida’s thinking on presence; and then to see if and how the power of the imagination, as expressed through Surrealism, adds to the process. I stress that my understanding of quantum physics is limited to a couple of headings one of which, at least, can be related to what’s going on in Surrealist poetry, which is the purpose of this essay.

‘Reality’ through interaction

According to quantum mechanics, the approach that describes it, to understand quantum physics is to understand the nature of reality itself. But, as Niels Bohr, the Danish scientist and pioneering authority on the phenomena, says ‘anyone who isn’t shocked by quantum theory hasn’t understood it’. The key proven tenet that is so shocking about the theory is the mysterious nature of electrons, the sub-atomic particles that are central to the understanding of quantum physics, which only exists when they interact with something or someone. In an experiment these electrons were fired at a crystal screen; to the amazement of those conducting it, the electron particles formed wave – not particle –  formations when they hit the screen. The electrons were changing, in transit, from being particles to becoming waves.  But what happens during the journey remains a spooky mystery. The cause and the effect  of the process  – the before and after , the electron and the wave pattern –  can be understood but ‘We cannot describe what is travelling [author’s italics] as a physical object’[Professor Jim Al-Khalili], it is a ghostly possibility that only becomes ‘real’ when it interacts, i.e. with the screen and with the observer. The presence of electrons in transit cannot become ‘real’ until they interact with the screen, and with the observer, to form wave patterns. ‘Electrons are everywhere at once, they are not solid reality, only the potential for reality…only by looking do we conjure them into existence’ claims Niels Bohr. This revelation prompted Einstein to remark ‘Does the moon not exist till we look at it?’

A ghostly presence with the potential for reality

For the French philosopher and architect of Deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, presence is not possible to perceive, it is not the bedrock of meaning and existence that the Greek philosophers believed to be perceptible in ‘the real world’. For him the notion of a bedrock, or an origin, to being, ‘did not even disappear, it was never constituted except reciprocally by a non-origin, the ‘ghostly’ trace, which thus becomes the origin of the origin’ [ Derrida. Of Grammatology]. Trace is ‘the unity between retention and protention’ of past and ‘what is to come’.  Yet that trace is a non-definable, abstract, ethereal like phenomena that can only go as far as to ask questions about the possible existence of presence. For the philosopher of linguistics, Derrida, language can never be a pure manifestation of presence. The description of meaning of the present is only possible through retrospective application of attempts to mean in language; thus confirming that meaning can never be definitively present.   The present moment  is never “present” for Derrida; like Al- Khalili and Bohr it is a ghostly possibility with the potential for reality since it refers to a past, but it is also always moving towards an anticipation of representation  through words that are backdated onto  an unknowable phenomena that  only becomes perceptible  when it, later, interacts and or is observed.   How close Derrida is to the ethereal possibility of quantum theory!

 An alternative reality?

All these assertions raise the profound question of presence. To ask can we experience reality if a basic component of existence is no more than a ghostly possibility, is the wrong question to ask? The so-called ‘ghostly possibility’ is reality, what we conjure from it may be the surreal that we are conditioned to believe to be the present. Scientists, philosophers and poets search for reality in perception where reality is the electron in transit, the present. Surrealists, on the other hand see the perceived world as the surreal, which becomes evident when we read their poetry and study their writings, especially those of Andre Breton, which  suggest, at very least, the possibility of an alternative reality.

Social realism – the top of a greasy pole

For Breton ‘surrealism…asserts our complete non-conformism…so that there can be no question of translating it at the trial of the real world’ [Breton Manifesto on Surrealism. 1924]] It could be a revolution in the approach to writing – and reading – poetry, a revolution that heralded, rather than delivered its objectives. Although much surrealist poetry was written, especially in the years up to the 1939 – 45 war, it lapsed, as most revolutions do, or was  supressed because of the discomfort  of forces in the media and publishing worlds who probably didn’t, or didn’t want to, understand the profundity of what Breton was about. Consequently, emerging poets whose work would be readily translatable at the law courts of reason, morality and reality, that was firmly rooted in realism e.g. The Movement, especially Larkin; Heaney, social realism and identity politics inspired poetry, were hoisted to the top of the greasy pole. Few will question the quality of their writing, or the depths to which their insights into what is perceived as the ‘human condition’ reach. Alas, like all movements, their day has passed. The passion that had driven the  translatable wordsmith, the logician, the  tortured thinker in pursuit of the ‘right’ word, the musical phrase, and the ideologically driven scribbler, who  had supplanted the  surrealist, has been drained to leave behind a mere fossil, a curiosity over which  future generations may, in idle moments, ponder. Nothing is inevitable. The revelations, thrust before us by scientists and philosophers, that cry out for completion by the poetic imagination, may be suppressed  by a vicious, mercenary establishment, or remain buried among sheaves of rejected works, waiting  for the acclaim of the enlightened of the future. The hope is that they will see in  ‘ the pure joy of the man sic  who, forewarned that all others before him have failed, refuses to admit defeat, sets off from whatever point he chooses, along any other path save a reasonable one, and arrives wherever he can’ [Breton, Manifesto] a poetics that, though working alongside science and philosophy, delivers that which they are unable to contribute: the power and courage of its poets’ imagination.

Surrealism – the source of the poetic imagination

For Breton, the surrealist goes back to the source of the poetic imagination, to the place where that part of the mind which aspires to leave the earth is stimulated and exercised. Dreams and the extreme measure of sleep and food deprivation facilitate access to the strangeness of a quasi-reality, a dimension that excludes thought, reason and moral judgement.  In aspiring to leave the earth Breton’s surrealism is sceptical of what is perceived in ‘ the waking state […] it –  [the waking state] –  really responds to anything but [author’s italics] the suggestion which comes to it from the depths of the dark night.’ The intensity of his rejection of the conventional view of reality drives him towards a vision of reality, a surreality, that he knows he cannot find. ‘It is in quest of this surreality that I am going, certain not to find it.’ [Manifesto] ‘Here he is echoed by Maurice Blanchot: ‘Poetry decrees and institutes the reign of what is not’ [The Book to Come, Maurice Blanchot 227]. In the Manifesto Breton describes how, after a period of hunger, the following phrase, came to him, ‘There is a man cut in two by the window’. On writing it ‘beautiful phrases, phrases such as I had never written before’ came to him so rapidly ‘that I lost a whole host of delicate details, because my pen could not keep up with them.’

More images than words

Surrealist poetry is more about images than words, images that don’t hesitate to bewilder sensation.  Images like  

A man with his head sewn

In the stockings of the setting sun

And whose hands are trunkfishes

are borne  ‘from a juxtaposition  of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be’ [ibid] For Breton, despite the many misfortunes to which we are heir, we are allowed freedom of thought ‘ and it is up to us not to misuse it.’ The greatest injustice we could do to ourselves would be to reduce the imagination to a state of slavery. For ‘imagination alone offers me some intimation of what can be.’ [Manifesto]. Breton is given surreal images by leaving the earth and disavowing the critical mind. Any controls he might exercise upon himself in its writing, such as pauses, are ‘gratuitous’. ‘It is true of surrealist images… that man does not evoke them: rather they come to him spontaneously, despotically […] a monologue …without any intervention on the part of the critical faculty.’ Here, in this momentous insight we can clearly identify the source of surrealist poetry and compare it to the ethereal nature of the electron in transit of quantum physics and the ghostly, unconstituted origin of presence in Derrida’s trace.

Power through defiance

 If the philosopher Derrida is close, through his unconstituted origin, to the quantum physics theory where the presence of the electron in flight cannot be described as a physical object, so too, as has been argued, is Breton in his poetics. He scorns the trappings of ‘reality’; logic and absolute rationalism that reduce the imagination to ‘an imperative, practical necessity’; they are applicable only to solving problems of a secondary interest. ‘The realistic attitude…seems to me to be hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement. […] It is made up of mediocrity, hate and dull conceit’. [ibid] Breton delights in knowing that ‘all others before him have failed’. Like the quantum physicists and Derrida, he believes his quest for what is to him surreality, to them the mystery of the electron in transit, and presence, is certain to end in failure [at the time of writing].  Where he triumphs is through belief in the power of the imagination that will defy mediocrity through throwing up defiant images that consign the realistic attitude to the dustbin of poetic history.  These images are an indispensable complement to the discourse on quantum physics. He knows that the ‘world is only very relatively in tune with thought ‘and like Einstein he knows that ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’


 Maurice Blanchot, The Book to Come, Stanford University Press, [2003]

Andre Breton, Manifesto on Surrealism, University of Michigan Press, [1999]

Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief lessons on Physics, [2014]

Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, John Hopkins University Press, [1997]

 Professor Jim Al-Khalili in BBC documentary, The Secrets of Quantum Physics, 2019

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