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Sigmund Freud, André Breton, Automatic Writing and Electronic Voice Phenomena

April 14, 2014

Andre Breton

André Breton at the flea-market in Paris, photo by Gisèle Freund c.1955

I was recently lucky enough to come across the Atlas Press edition, translated by Antony Melville, of “The Automatic Message”, originally published in 1933 by the artist and poet André Breton – the founder of the Surrealist movement, no less! André Breton’s essay offers what should provide some food-for-thought for those numerous (and sometimes famous and influential) artists who’ve opted to incorporate imagery of Spiritualism and of Electronic Voice Phenomena (ghost-voice) research into their work. Now, while the “Rorschach Audio” book notes that obvious precursors to contemporary EVP research existed in the form of Victorian Spiritualism, and that Spiritualist practices evolved into the modern EVP movement following a pretty-much smooth and continuous path, a major component of Victorian Spiritualism was the practice of automatic writing and automatic drawing, through which, in a manner similar to EVP recording, authors and artists were said to have communicated messages via direct mediumistic contact with the deceased. If we consider automatic writing and drawing to have been therefore more-or-less direct historic equivalents of technologically-mediated EVP recording, then Breton’s analysis stands in sobering contrast to those in contemporary art and music who in some cases promote literal belief in the alleged supernatural origin of EVP, or who adopt a stance of superficial and misleading neutrality while still perpetuating the myth that a bunch of (mostly) con-artists and charlatans were somehow “scientists”.

Sigmund Freud asserted that “the psychical origin of religious ideas” does not stem from “experience or (from the) end-results of thinking”, but from “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind”, and stated that “where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanour”. In fact Freud’s book “The Future of an Illusion” then goes so far as to describe the results of Spiritualist research as “wretchedly meaningless”. André Breton’s essay is equally striking, not least in reminding us of the critical influence that automatic writing and drawing had on the formation and development of what was arguably one of the most important art movements of the entire 20th century, but more because Breton states that…

“Numerous samples of medium-based automatic writing which have from time-to-time been offered-up for examination have proved far less interesting than drawings purporting to have the same origin, and it must be said that this is largely the fault of the pathetic spiritualist literature with which they have usually been contaminated from the outset. This kind of literature, as we know, has tended to proclaim vigorously, and try to gain acceptance for, the idea that the dictating element is external, in other words that “spirits” exist (clarity demands the use of this nauseating term). Medium draughtsmen have had their share of this unreasonable belief… but it is above all in writing that this pathetic joke has followed its degrading course… I would rather remain silent about efforts which are generally posited on a tainted basis, by which I mean that the hope of obtaining a communication from “the beyond” pre-exists the writing – of procuring the assistance of a great departed soul whose voice can be recognised by the tone of school recitation. These pieces indeed have nothing in common besides this emphatic tone and staggering level of naivety.” (pp.23-24)

In analysing the role that specific psychoacoustic illusions play in the misperception of sense-data such as EVP recordings, in therefore the transmission of EVP beliefs, and in a variety of other auditory and visual illusions, the “Rorschach Audio” book argues that the perceptual creativity demonstrated by our capacity to form such illusions emerged for very important reasons, as a result of evolutionary biology. The book argues that what these perceptual phenomena demonstrate is not evidence of supernatural activity, but evidence of underlying, intrinsic and in fact universal creative faculties, whose very existence subverts traditional, conservative thinking about the presumed supremacy of exclusionary “high culture” and “high art”. It’s often forgotten just how intensely and intrinsically political and idealistic the Surrealist movement was, and, as André Breton put it, “Surrealism’s achievement is to have proclaimed that all normal humans are completely equal in relation to the subliminal message, and to have maintained constantly that this message is a common heritage of which we can each have only to claim our share, and which must at all costs soon cease to be seen as the preserve of the few. Every man and every woman deserves the personal conviction that they themselves can, by right, have resource at will to this language, which is not in any way supernatural.” (p.26)

Thanks to everyone who came along to Café Scientifique in Oxford, and special thanks to Dr Rachel Quarrell of Balliol College for the invitation.

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