“La Ligne de vie” (“Lifeline”)

René Magritte

Lecture illustrated with slides,
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp,
November 20, 1938


[Note: The footnotes are scattered and confusing, but all quotes are evidently from this lecture, and there are more fragments quoted or paraphrased in the book. Danchev tells the story of the lecture and the various fragments and versions published, as noted in these and other footnotes and throughout the book. I have added parentheses to Danchev’s own words in the main text. Magritte excerpts in translation do not appear in parenthese or brackets. — RD]

15. Magritte, “Lifeline,” Catalogue Raisonné vol. V (Houston: The Menil Foundation / Philip Wilson Publishers, 1997), pp. 10–11.

28. Magritte’s “Lifeline” was first published in English in “Surrealism in Belgium,” View [7] (New York, no 42 December 1946), pp. 21–23. [In a bad translation by Felix Giovanelli]

40. The digest appears as “La Ligne de vie II” in EC, pp. 142–46. Cf. Magritte to Mariën, n.d. [February 1940], in Magritte, Destination, p. 36.

(A complete reconstruction of the lecture as delivered had to await the publication of Magritte’s catalogue raisonné, in 1997, half a century later—a magnificent restoration, only slightly marred by a rather ponderous translation, which contained a number of inaccuracies and a perplexing misreading in the stirring peroration. [45])

Ladies, Gentlemen, Comrades,

The old question, “Who are we?” is given a disappointing answer in the world in which we have to live. We are merely the subjects of this supposedly civilized world, in which intelligence, depravity, heroism and stupidity rub along together, the last word in topicality. We are the subjects of this absurd and incoherent world in which arms are manufactured for the prevention of war, science is devoted to destroying, killing, building, and prolonging the lives of the dying, and where the most insane activity is self-contradictory. We live in a world where people marry for money, and where palaces are built and left to decay on the sea-front. It still holds up, this world, for better or worse; but aren’t the signs of its future ruin already visible in the night sky?

To reiterate these obvious truths seems naïve and pointless to those who are not bothered by them and who quietly benefit from this state of affairs. Those who live on this disorder are keen to make it last. But their so-called realistic method of retouching the old edifice is compatible only with certain measures that are themselves new disorders, new contradictions. Unwittingly, therefore, the realists are hastening the inevitable collapse of this doomed world.

Other men, with whom I proudly stand, consciously wish for the proletarian revolution that will transform the world, despite the accusation of utopianism levelled against them; and we work towards that end, each according to his means. However, as we await the destruction of this mediocre reality, we must defend ourselves against it.

Nature furnishes us with a dream state, which offers our bodies and minds the freedom that they so badly need. Nature has also been bountiful in creating for the weak and needy the refuge of madness, which protects them from the stifling atmosphere of this world fashioned by centuries of idolatrous worship of money and gods.

The most powerful defensive weapon is love; it takes lovers into an enchanted domain exactly made to measure and admirably protected by isolation.

Finally, Surrealism provides humanity with a method and mental approach suitable for pursuing investigations into realms which have been ignored or despised but which are however of direct concern to man. Surrealism claims for our waking life a freedom similar to that which we have in dreams. This freedom is latent in the mind, and in practice new technicians need only concentrate on ameliorating some complex or other—the ridiculous, perhaps—and on determining the minor modifications to our habit of seeing only what we choose to see, in order to discover immediately the objects of our desires. Everyday experience, tangled up as it is in religious, civil or military doctrines, permits of these possibilities up to a point. In any event, the Surrealists know how to be free. “Freedom, the colour of man,” proclaims André Breton. [49]

49 From “Il n’y a pas à sortir de là,” in Clair de terre (1923) in OC, vol. I, p. 169. Magritte, “Lifeline,” part one.

I woke up in a room where there was a cage with a bird asleep in it. By splendid mistake I saw the cage with the bird vanished and replaced by an egg. I was thus vouchsafed a new and astounding poetic secret, for the shock I experienced was caused precisely by the affinity between two objects, the cage and the egg, whereas previously I caused the shock by bringing together completely unrelated objects. Following this revelation, I tried to discover whether objects other than the cage could also display the same manifest poetic quality produced by the conjunction of the egg and the cage, whether some element peculiar to them and strictly part of their destiny could be brought to light. In the course of my research I became convinced that the element to be discovered, that unique thing obscurely associated with each object, was always known to me in advance, but that it was as if the knowledge was lost in the depths of my thought. Since my research had to arrive at a single correct answer for each object, my investigations took the form of trying to find the solution to a problem with three given points of reference: the object; the thing associated with it in the shadow of my consciousness; and the light in which this thing should appear. [45]

45 Magritte, “Lifeline.” [Is this from part 2?   See also Magritte, ars combinatoria, Borges. — RD]

It was then that I met my friends Paul Nougé, E. L. T. Mesens and Jean [Louis] Scutenaire. We were united by common concerns. We got to know the Surrealists, who were giving violent expression to their disgust with bourgeois society. Their revolutionary demands being the same as ours, we joined with them to put ourselves at the service of the proletarian revolution.

It was a failure. The political leaders of the workers’ parties proved to be too vain and too slow to grasp what the Surrealists could contribute. Such were the high and mighty who were allowed seriously to compromise the cause of the proletariat in 1914. They were also allowed to indulge in every kind of cowardice and baseness. In Germany, when they represent a well-disciplined body of workers and have the power easily to crush that pest Hitler, they simply yield to him and his handful of fanatics. In France, Monsieur [Léon] Blum [the prime minister] has recently been helping the Germans and the Italians to murder the young Spanish republic; fearing a revolutionary situation, as he says, he seems to ignore the rights and the power of the people by yielding in his turn to a threatening reactionary minority. Note, by the way, that a political leader of the proletariat has to be very brave to proclaim his faith in the cause he espouses. Such men are killed.

The subversive side of Surrealism obviously worried traditional working-class politicians who are at times almost indistinguishable from the most ardent defenders of the bourgeois world. Surrealist thought is revolutionary on every level, and is necessarily opposed to the bourgeois conception of art. It happens that left-wing politicians agree with that conception, and when it comes to painting, they will have nothing to do with it unless it is well-behaved.

However, for a politician who claims to be revolutionary and who must therefore look to the future, the bourgeois conception of art ought to be anathema, for it is characterized by the exclusive worship of the works of the past, and by the wish to halt the development of art. In the bourgeois world, also, the measure of worth of a work of art is its rarity, its cash-value; its intrinsic worth is of interest only to a naïve and backward few who are as satisfied by seeing a flower in the field as by owning a diamond, genuine or fake. A conscious revolutionary like Lenin gauges cash at its true worth. He writes: “When we have won victory on a global scale, I think we shall build gold urinals in the streets of some of the greatest cities in the world.”[50] A senile reactionary like Clemenceau, slavish follower of every bourgeois myth, uttered this demented thought about art: “No doubt I won the world war, but if I have any claim to fame in future history, I shall owe it to my forays in the field of art.” [51]

Surrealism is revolutionary because it is implacably opposed to all the bourgeois ideological values that keep the world in the appalling state it is in today. [52]

51 This quotation appears to be apocryphal. It was a favorite of Magritte’s, repeated in “L’Art bourgeois,” London Bulletin 12 (15 March 1939), in EC, pp. 132–33; SW, pp. 68–69.

52 Magritte, “Lifeline,” part 3.

Over time, the society of the future will gain an experience which will be the fruit of a profound analysis, the possibilities of which are opening up before us. And it is thanks to a rigorous preliminary analysis that the pictorial experience as I understand it can be established here and now. This pictorial experience confirms my faith in the unheeded possibilities of life. All these things to which we have been blind that are now coming to light serve to convince me that our happiness also depends on an enigma bound up with man, and that our only duty is to try to grasp it. [54]

54 Magritte, “Lifeline,” conclusion. In the final paragraph, the translation in the CR substitutes “gorgeous” for “rigorous” preliminary analysis. The misreading is repeated in the reconstruction of “Magritte’s Lost Lecture” in the catalog of the centenary exhibition in Brussels: Ollinger-Zinque and Leen, eds. Magritte 18981967(Ghent: Ludion, 1998), pp. 41–48; it has been perpetuated ever since.


CR René Magritte Catalogue Raisonné, 6 vols (Antwerp/Brussels: Mercatorfonds, 1992–2012)

EC René Magritte, Écrits complets [1979] (Paris: Flammarion, 2009), ed. André Blavier

OC Oeuvres complètes

SW René Magritte, trans. Jo Levy, Selected Writings (Richmond: Alma, 2016), ed. Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner)

SOURCE: Danchev, Alex; Whitfield, Sarah. Magritte: a Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 2020.

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René Magritte: Écrits Complets (Complete Writings: Contents & Indexes)

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