The Festal Topography in André Breton’s Paris

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


The book chapter begins with some brief reflections on the nature of the public realm of the traditional European city. These often evolved as a scenographic setting for communal political and religious practices, which were seen as essential for social cohesion and the continued well-being of the city. Rooted in a cosmological world view and its shared symbolic tradition, the rituals and festivals staged in the civic realm were also an essential source of the community’s existential orientation, providing a physical expression of a collective understanding of the structure of the cosmos, and of the role of the individual within that whole.
This was the case roughly until the Enlightenment, when secularization, industrialization and the growth of instrumental reason began to permeate European culture. While traditionally the public domain had always taken priority over the private, with the new fascination in the nineteenth century with the inner world of the individual, this order of things would reverse. These developments, played out within the modern industrial metropolis, would change the nature of the civic realm forever.
And yet, there have been some fruitful poetic attempts to reinvest the city with its former significance and magic. The main body of the paper will contain an interpretation of the city of Paris by the French surrealists, and more specifically by André Breton in his book L’Amour fou. In Breton’s writings, Paris often becomes a theatre of mysterious encounter, modern myth, and uncanny coincidences. In the Night of the Sunflower chapter, the city becomes a non-perspectival psychic terrain, where the poet meets and is guided through a marvellous urban topography by the beautiful nymph Ondine. The lovers’ allegorical night-time walk through the city is structured through allusion to initiatic and alchemical themes – labyrinth, death and regeneration, pilgrimage, courtly love, and royal entry procession. The familiar places and landmarks of the city form a personal poetic itinerary, taking on archetypal character in Breton’s journey toward the transmutation of the imagination in triumphant surreality. The paper will conclude with some reflections on the status of such salvational aspirations in a desacralized world, and on the role which today’s public realm might play.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationArchitecture, Festival and the City
EditorsJemma Browne, Christian Frost, Ray Lucas
ISBN (Electronic)9780429432125
ISBN (Print)9781138362345
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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