In December 2015, seventy years after his first visit catalyzed the overthrow of the Haitian Government of Elie Lescot, the Surrealist leader André Breton returned to Port-au Prince in association with the Ghetto Biennale and the University of Muri to deliver a new series of seven lectures on Surrealism in the 21st Century…
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is impossible to express the sensation I feel on having returned to Haiti. Even whether what it is that I am feeling can be captured by the concept of sensation. I can’t really believe it has been seventy years – the duration of lifetime, if not a breathtaking dramatic pause. To be sure, the figure cannot but recall the immemorial address by Lincoln, delivered, lest we forget, two years after the beginning of a war that emancipated the American slaves some ninety years after the news reached France that the slaves of Saint-Domingue had begun to free themselves. And two years before the death of the Emancipator, in, of all places, a theater, murdered by an actor quoting Brutus, instead of Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
But I am not here to speak of Lincoln, the Haitian revolution, or the US, hot or cold, civil war. And only indirectly about tyranny and freedom – given freedom is a topic one confronts at one’s own risk. It is enough to know that certain consequences follow inescapably from positions – that of a friend, or lover, or struck by France against her colonies, or the United States against itself, which generated the most violent of reactions.
Or indeed, that of an attitude acquired slowly over time – that one does not fall into, but approaches only with great patience. From what point of view should one consider life?
Given that opening steps must inevitably shape the path to be followed, I am drawn to begin with time. With this question – of time, and the question it poses, or proposes – in relativity to space, and to itself, these convoluted, overlapping signatures, like the drunken wasp’s flight of Verlaine.
For one, the time that’s passed. Simultaneously, the time I am now committed to keep speaking, here, in this place, this task I’m charged with, and your expectations, and my own.
Plainly put, for better or for worse, I believe that I am called here to defend Surrealism. To defend it, and perhaps explain it – what it was, or is, what our goals were, at the time when we first embarked, a group of friends, upon this path, which took me and now takes me back to Haiti. And what these goals remain today.
To defend Surrealism – not just as as a sequence of events which have already taken place but as a sequence which continues to unfold, which is unfolding at this moment, and not only here, in glances stolen – perhaps borrowed.
Certainly, it’s up to every generation to rediscover for itself the secret of a sense of hope conveying purpose. But we misunderstand time – we misunderstand the past – when we imagine it as aeons, as millennia, when in fact, the past is an encounter, an eye-blink, or the interval between two frames. There is a before and after, when one meets a stranger, or falls in love, or breaks a silence, or acquires a new friend.
Thus it has been said that from the moment of its publication, it became impossible to think as if The Critique of Pure Reason had never existed. And I will have occasion to speak today of other individuals, known to me – of Jacques Vaché, and Aragon, and others, whose thoughts inescapably impressed themselves upon my own.
For if Surrealism means anything, it means a spirit of adventure, embarked upon with friends, when no-one knows where it will lead, or what it means, or thinks to ask.
Yet what Surrealism should be discussed – what is this thing which I am, when is all is said and done, discussing, what is the importance of this word, which has been traduced so many times? And what is the significance of Surrealism for Haiti?
I can admit what I believe – that there is a undercurrent of communication – a channel of transmission analogous, perhaps, to obscure conceptions of certain eighteenth century occultists – of a mode of secret sympathy or solidarity – which exists between these territories, which today must be recovered at all costs.
If I already possessed some latent consciousness of this before, I now can add that the intuition has been growing on me ever since I first received the invitation to return– that the fates of Haiti and Surrealism, and my own fate, are connected inextricably – umbilically, just as a message in a bottle connects two points across an ocean.
So much for fate! One appreciates that the steps create the path, and that those steps which initially appear most lost may yet be decisive. Who can decide the difference between a mission and duty, when both are undertaken, not imposed? In the same way that one meets a perfect stranger, and calls to mind before proceeding further – and I think now of Caitlin Lunaire – that in the beginning, and even also at the end, Surrealism will be, will have been a movement of a certain kind of friendship – it’s possibility – and an experience of love.
It’s impossibility. Not of love as such, since love is truly possible, but the impossibility that occupies the heart of love – the mystery around which lovers turn, each seeking deep in silence what can be expressed, certainly, the real is no less real for being shadowed.
It is vital to remember – behind the history of Surrealism, all the divagations that it took, was the conviction that we shared that something was at stake. At stake in the defense of the consistency of a certain manner of association – a principle of liberty, on which all we agreed, apart from our differences, without always – without ever being able to define it, except as a rejection – of everything that was not alive.
My aim here is to speak only of Surrealism – the part and future, and the present.
But an aim is not a goal, and a great deal has been said already. Today Surrealism is a topic in art history, a certain kind of label, a subject for conversation by museums – a word one hears. This word – Surreal – which falls easily from people’s lips – or trips – perhaps too easily – from people’s tongues like they are spreading wicked rumors.
For some, it is a word they know; for others, including, I imagine, certain members in this audience, the word itself is unfamiliar, yet in actuality this group may be closer to the spirit of Surrealism then the others. If I may generalize, I don’t think it is unfair to say: the perception is that Surrealism has happened, that it has occurred; that it was, once, a living movement, but this movement has now ceased – that it has ceased to move, that in a word, Surrealism is dead.
If there is nothing else that I am able to convey across the series of these talks, I hope I am successful in conveying this: that surrealism is alive.
Living, perhaps, in exile, under a false name, elsewhere to its registered address – in Mexico, in Reykjavik, in Paris and in Haiti, perhaps especially in Haiti, as an eternal idea, composed equally of the transcendental and transient, the contingent, and fleeting, as the possibility of freedom, and of love, held over everything, because the most desperate and despairing state imaginable.
Certainly one cannot deny that as a force – as a force of organization in culture and politics, Surrealism has suffered a loss of momentum. But I do not think that it is wrong to say this loss has been suffered, not purely by Surrealism, but by culture as a whole – that it too has suffered from as loss of energy, a loss of substance, and of focus, and of life.
Let us not attempt to insulate ourselves against the facts. One cannot pretend that it is not a challenge to reflect upon the spread of values that animates contemporary culture with real optimism. And not just because there is a general lack of optimism – but because a certain mode of mortifying sensibility has been incorporated into culture.
It is a question, finally, of circling around to face a task that has acquired a true and pressing urgency for the poets and the artists of today. Not just for them, although the task is theirs – of rediscovering a sense of hope like being thrown ahead of time. And I believe the path runs through Haiti.
Allow me take the opportunity to recollect my previous visit. I came by airplane on December 5, 1945 – from New York City after three years in America in exile. I’d recently published Surrealism and Painting, and was preparing to return to Paris in anticipation of the wages of the recent war. My inaugural lecture – at the Rex Theater – took place two weeks after my arrival, to an audience incorporating all the luminaries of the country, including the President, Mr. Elie Lescot. In the interim, I took the opportunity to see something of the country for myself.
I admit I’d been transfixed by Haiti ever since I’d read William Seabrook’s book The Mysterious Island some ten years earlier. But I had not prepared to face the grinding poverty of a country in which men earned less then one American cent for an entire day’s labor, and children in the Port-au-Prince suburbs lived on tadpoles they fished from the sewers.
At the Rex, I spoke of what I saw – and made my intentions clear: To salute the indomitable spirit of the Haitian people, while decrying the abuses to which that spirit was being subjected. And I found myself reading about myself the next day – in the newspaper of the revolutionary youth, La Ruche – a claim that my words were electrifying.
In short, the editors had decided to take an insurrectional tone. What followed next is a mater of record. La Ruche was shut down, the issue was confiscated, it’s editorial offices were raided, and the staff was arrested – this action which led to a student strike, which turned into a general strike. A few days after that, the government was taken hostage, and new elections were called, with Dumarsais Estime replacing Lescot as the President.
Alas the optimism which followed proved to be short lived – in the event, the interim military junta blocked reforms, and eventually paved the way for the rule of Duvalier. I myself remained in Haiti for the next three months while this sequence was unfolding – before returning to my own country in the spring of 1946.
France was dark with shame. A year before, my countrymen had marked their liberation by the forces of the US army by taking their revenge on women. Thousands had their heads shaved by the men of France, compelled to function as the scapegoats of their cowardice, as France piled more humiliation and disgrace upon itself.
Men who’d been producing plays in Paris under the Nazi occupation proclaimed themselves as heroes of resistance; policemen of Vichy fired pistols at departing German soldiers. Desnos was dead, Aragon and Éluard had placed themselves under the discipline of Moscow. Existentialism – the philosophy of Sartre – had captured the imagination of the public.
Meanwhile Surrealism had been transformed – into the subject of a retrospective gaze, in which our activities before the war – hardly applauded at the time – were integrated into the myth of pre-War France established by De Gaulle.
We were remembered to forget – to forget the war, and at the same time, to forget us, by entombing us within a mausoleum of the past that never had existed at the time.
The cameo of Antonin Artaud – the figure who I always think of when I recall the first days of Surrealism – best represents this period. Released from the hospital of Saint Rodez, where he’d spent the duration of war, like a man returning from the grave, he was commissioned to produce a work for radio – To Have Done With The Judgement of God – but the piece was never broadcast thanks to the intervention of the censor. Barely two weeks later this great poet, was dead, as if he had only been waiting for the final confirmation of the mendacity of the presiding state of things.
At the very point, in other words, of maximum possibility, and even victory, the door slams shut. I am conscious I am painting an unhappy picture – an impression of a valediction, like a farewell to a lover whom one does not truly wish to part from, but cannot stay with. Still, I wish to emphasize that it is necessary to understand the period not only as an end, but a beginning. As a time in which seeds were being planted, if invisibly, as in certain fairytales.
Just as our presence in New York during the war only truly made itself felt visibly some decades later, in the painters and the poets of the fifties and the sixties, here too a transmigration was occurring through the forties that it would be not be strictly honest to maintain that we controlled.
It was not that Surrealism did not continue to develop. Only that, following the outline established in the Second Surrealist Manifesto, we went into occlusion, embracing silence as our Beatrice, from a point of view of exile conceived, as in Kabbalistic manuscripts, as more than deprivation. Here again, it is a matter of a concept of creation scattered through the world, whereby a task of recollection serves as the prelude for a more majestic reconciliation. Which returns us once again to Haiti.
And to be clear – in insisting once again on the existence of a powerful, vital connection between Surrealism and Haiti – my intention isn’t to objectify the Haitians, as if this country was no more than a mirror reflecting back our self-conceptions as the backdrop to a conversation we conduct amongst ourselves.
The connection is more personal, and even intimate; the matter of a certain territory of feeling that I will not say was lost in Haiti, but may be said to have been left here – like certain pirates of the Caribbean, fleeing navies of great powers, sequestered treasure in secluded spots to recover decades later.
Here one may speak of the wealth of freedom of the Haitian spirit, which more than any other, still continues to miraculously draw its vigor from the French Revolution, and the arc of Haitian history, which demonstrates man’s most moving, and one must concede, most tragic, efforts to break away from slavery and into freedom. This same freedom which Surrealism has always stood for, and attempted to maintain, through a dark period of human history, at a tremendous price and cost.
It is not just the possibility, but the reality, of this connection which I wish to speak of, indeed express, across these talks. The strength of feeling I possess that it exists already, and only now is dormant. The sense that it is something more than just an accident of history which has conjoined the destinies of Surrealism and Haiti. The spirit of defiance captured perfectly by the incomparable phrase of the indomitable Toussaint L’Ouverture, whose airport I felt honored to have landed in just days ago.
I refuse to be an instrument or toy.
This spirit of refusal in the wake of the Great War – at that point we didn’t know it would produce an even more destructive sequel. This refusal to fight any longer in any man’s army. This spirit which animated, even consumed Jacques Vaché – which I would say possessed him, but it was he possessed it – when I met him for the first time in a military hospital in 1917.
This determination to live in the present – recklessly, and without pity, and especially self-pity. Carried from Dada into Surrealism – as affirmation – and one may observe it active once again in Europe after the end of World War Two among the young people who formed CoBrA, and the Letterist International – this spirit which in recent years has become understood as rejection of what is called capitalism – but which is more deeply the rejection of slavery, and the struggle against slavery which can take many forms, including forms which masquerade as revolutionary.
So much was true in Europe in the twenties that remains the case today. Let there be no misunderstanding. I am not here to lecture Haitians on the Haitians – not even on the history of the Haiti, which like every history has one side that manifests as an external force of enthusiasm, but to rediscover the degree to which the destiny of Haiti exist in a reciprocal relation with the destiny of mankind as a whole.
The scope of this encounter, which, like all the others, imposes a particular necessity for actuality – for an ability to know the steps that brought one here – to know they were inevitable, or that at least is what they have become.
The question is not if it is possible to speak of Haiti and Surrealism in the same breath, but if it is not impossible to separate them. Just as the end of one’s breath is the beginning of another’s, it is a matter of shared fate, as the subjects of a destiny which has yet to reach a destination. Meeting, again, for a second time, scarred – betrayed, transfigured into myths, fragmented, smothered by corruption into a poverty all the more disturbing in that a central cause has ceased to be simplistic to discern. On both counts, in the light of the whole set of our circumstances here, we are compelled to speak of tangled interstices of invisible, impersonal, strange and mysterious forces. On what basis can such forces be considered and conceived? Can they be confronted? Even conquered?
Here we arrive now to the final topic I wish to approach in this first lecture – of the question of “resistance” – the meaning of this term. This idea of forms of resistance, which is one of the subtitles of the biennale which invited me to be here, even, the temptation of resistance.
The word itself, of course, has many meanings, which is equally to say, that it has none, beyond the spread of contexts in which it is deployed. Here in Haiti of course there is the Atis Rezistans. For those who lived through the years of the German occupation of France, it was associated with the Maquis – later there were those who fought different battles, to associate themselves with it – with the glamour of combat, and heroism, of the army of shadows.
Today, it is a word which, like surreal, appears to fall from mouths extremely easily and lightly in a certain sector of our society, dropped onto the marble floors of galleries and museums in New York, and London, and Dubai.
Let me be clear – I do not doubt that there is real resistance, that it exists, that one can drag one’s feet, for instance, when no other action can be made. I think here of Desnos and his actions in the last days of the war, at the concentration camp Theresienstadt, in forestalling his own execution and those of his comrades – in the line to the gas chamber – by grabbing the hand of the woman in front of him – and reading her palm, foretelling a long life, joy, and grandchildren. And then another palm, and then another, and another – predicting joy on each occasion – and by this method so effectively and thoroughly establishing a new reality that the guards were unable to carry out their orders and proceed with the executions, and the condemned were returned to their barracks.
By virtue of his unvanquished Surrealist spirit, and the power of his imagination, Desnos saved his own life and the lives of others. That is resistance. But I think too of an electrical circuit – how a circuit requires resistance to keep working – and in the same way, how a rhetoric of resistance masks practical accommodation, directionlessness, even cowardice, as if there was nothing real that could be done.
Therefore, I say – let us resist the resistance. Let us resist the self-deception that dragging one’s feet, or blocking a door, is sufficient when we have places to go – and recognize the superior power of the absolute concept: refusal.
The refusal to drift aimlessly – by the affirmation of the drift itself, as the mother of free actions. The refusal of the alibi of pessimism – and the alibi of will and intellect treated like as if they were separate things. The refusal formulated peerlessly by Toussaint L’Ouverture: I refuse to be an instrument or toy.
There are, indeed, so few of us remaining now that each can truly know their own. And to call to mind once again, as I did at the Rex seventy years ago, the words of Jacques Roumain’s novel Gouverners de Rossee, this description of spirit: “We’re poor, that’s true. We’re out of luck, that’s true. We’re miserable, that’s true. But do you know why, brother? Because of our ignorance. We don’t know yet what a force we are.”
Thank you very much