Secret religion: Surrealism in the new era of religion

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




David L. Miller


Religion and literature, sacred, religion and politics, college of sociology, religion and revolution

Subject Categories

Latin American Literature | Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion


The central proposition of the dissertation is that surrealism, which is conventionally understood as an avant-garde literary and artistic movement of the early twentieth century, is best grasped as a modern religious project or religiosity. The approach of the dissertation is two-fold. It both differentiates surrealist religiosity from the religion proper of its milieu and locates those aspects that mark it as an innovative religious assemblage.

Chapter 1 provides an insider's perspective on the secret religion of surrealism by considering the works of Octavio Paz, André Breton, and Louis Aragon. The chapter explores the romantic lineage of surrealism, its twin methodology of analogy and irony, and the surrealist desire to create a "modern mythology" based on "love, poetry, and rebellion."

Chapters 2 and 3 consider the work of two founders of the near contemporaneous movement of the "College of Sociology," Roger Caillois and Georges Bataille. Chapter 2 conveys Caillois's theory of a sacred economy and situates surrealism within this economy as a festive religiosity of transgression and creativity. Bataille's abandoned attempt at articulating a distinct surrealist religion is examined in chapter 3. The chapter develops surrealism as a radical religious endeavor directed against its capitalist enclosure and explores its creation of poetic effects analogous to those generated by what Bataille considers "primitive" religious mechanisms.

Chapters 4 and 5 consider the contributions of William James and Henri Bergson toward a rethinking of religion in the early twentieth century. Chapter 4 examines James's rehabilitations of religious experience, mysticism, asceticism, and verbal automatism and their resonances with surrealism. The chapter also situates the secret religion of surrealism within what James considers a "new era" in religion. Bergson's notion of a "new species" of dynamic, mystical, creative, and activist religionists and its applicability to the surrealists is taken up in chapter 5. Methods of religious composition and their continuities with surrealist poetic practices are also examined in the chapter.

In sum, the dissertation provides multiple theoretical perspectives for explicating surrealism as a distinctly modern religiosity assembled out of poetic exuberance and production, loving affects, and revolutionary politics.


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