Surrealism is central to understanding twentieth century Peruvian cultural production, yet some of its complexities remain under-studied, including the impact of the political demands that both inspired and inhibited its proponents, or how they championed surrealism as a fundamental tool for modernizing not only Peruvian literature, but also visual art and even society. Based on new interpretations and fresh archival work, this dissertation explores the specific ways in which José Carlos Mariátegui, Xavier Abril, and César Moro engaged with the surrealist spirit, as André Breton articulated it: “‘Transform the world,’ said Marx; ‘change life,’ said Rimbaud: for us these two slogans are one and the same.”
Chapter 1 focuses on Mariátegui, Peru’s most important Marxist thinker, by exploring the unresolved tension between his two distinct approaches to surrealism. In the context of the communist demand for a socialist realist literature, at times Mariátegui perceived surrealist endeavors as evidence of the cultural confusion that announced a revolutionary period. Yet Mariátegui concurrently backed surrealism from another perspective that configured his aesthetic heterodoxy: in his essays and his only novel, La novela y la vida. Siegfried y el profesor Canella (which has received scant critical attention), he viewed surrealism as a form of liberation via fantasy, the unconscious, and love, all valid means for renovating literature and connecting it with real life. Chapter 2 explores how Abril initially used surrealism as an eclectic label that appropriated the repertoire of earlier vanguard movements to position himself and other young Peruvian poets as legitimate, up-to-date voices in both local and transatlantic settings. I also explain how Abril’s initial attempt to renew Peruvian literature was realized and expanded to the social realm in his short novel El autómata, where he finally achieved a mature surrealist imagery. In this text, from which I present two unpublished fragments, Abril employs surrealism to convince the reader that madness is the path to overcoming the castrating demands of bourgeois society, and subsequently create what he calls a “surrealist class” and a “surrealist culture.” Chapter 3 is devoted to Moro, one of the most representative surrealist poets in Latin America, and the most important in Peru. Focusing on his collages and paintings, this chapter shows the centrality of Moro’s work as a visual artist to his brand of surrealism. I demonstrate that one of the most powerful surrealist statements in Peru is Moro’s attempt to contentiously persuade his spectators through visual means that poetry and dream are the ways to overcome antiquated artistic expectations and obtain “clairvoyance”—the capacity to appreciate and engage with the new expressive language of contemporary times: surrealism.