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… [Translated from French by DC Miller.]
Mesdames et Meisseurs,
Last time, in the ruins of Duvalierville, this monument to God knows what, I spoke of cities – cities and the city – streets I’ve walked, and streets I’ve only read about in books. Today, in the environs of the Alliance Francais, my intention is to speak of something still closer to home.
I speak of language. Speech, verlan, and Creole – Rimbaud – and more generally, Surrealism and language. This, at least, is my intention. Yet we would do well to remember that when it comes to language, the sovereignty of an intention is never wholly on the speaker’s side – given there are those who convince themselves into insisting on exactly this. There is a kind of motive that inheres in words themselves, their combinations – words make love to words, a young poet once declared, yet one also can’t deny that sometimes they are cold to one another, that they argue and betray things – secrets, for example, or desires – that one might have preferred remained unsaid.
And it was indeed this recognition which proved cardinal in the first days of Surrealism. Even years before the Surrealist Manifesto, and the definition of Surrealism as psychic automatism, pure and simple – it was this skeptical, polemical position that we struck towards language that proved crucial in bequeathing to us our courage of convictions.
In the Magnetic Fields, for instance, Soupault and myself placed our production underneath the sign, not of absolutely random chance, but, rather, the internal force of language, in order to investigate whether there was a particular direction in which it was disposed to move.
Our concept was to organize a survey of the most breathless forms – to steal into language like a thief at night. Our intuition was that there was a surrealism of language – a surrealism present within language, as well as a Surrealist viewpoint on the matter.
Which is equally to say that the territories of language and the city are not really far apart – if at first they seem divided, we only should recall the well-known dictum that residents of many cities have the ability to instantly identify the district that a person comes from by their accents – just as strangers in the ancient world always stood out through their tongues. And if by temperament, I can admit I’d be inclined to expound at endless length on this analogy – and I will in fact return to it – for now the central task is put the problem forward in a line.
The problem which these days’ exercises language exercises all of it at once. Historically, when all is said and done, we are still inside the juncture represented by the death of Baudelaire – the last poet for whom it was still possible to relate directly to his words, by wrapping his emotions in them, as well as the one for whom the city, for the first time, became a problem of true spiritual significance. His challenge is our own – that of defending, at all costs, against the perversion of language that results from its discoloration through exchange.
It was after Baudelaire – after his calamitous journey to Brussels, this city where the people picked their arguments out of the gutters, and perhaps still do, his funeral and rebirth, that the interior of the Symbolist cenacle embarked on a kind of rearguard action, retreating back behind a wall of echoes, even as this shadowy activity was redoubled by the operations of a set of occult groups taking place nearby under a variety of names: Illuminism, Martinism, Hermeticism, and others too. And in retrospect, one clearly may observe the correspondences between these spheres.
Amongst the poets of the time, it was Rimbaud, a devoted student of occultist texts, who was the first to truly understand the association, and even the identity of the poetic and the esoteric problem – hence his book Illuminations. The problem which was also at the same time – in this period and still today – the central problem of the city: Of creating a system that could be both open and closed. That lets in light, but not too much, which could be understood at once, without banality, but which retained the possibility of mystery without surrendering to obscurantism.
For Rimbaud, the aim was not to become deranged – to derange the senses – through pure caprice, but to create a real existence for a poem of the senses – in the sense of an adventure. Hence his move towards separation – exile. What indeed to make of this? My personal belief – the gesture was not wholly intended as an exit, but as a prelude to a return that would not only be his own. Hence also the prevailing disappointment that his activities produced – their final absence of a testimony.
The problem was indeed to journey into a particular dichotomy in language – one could even say a gulf – a Caribbean – between the rational and logical, and the mystical and the ecstatic. An animate abyss – in which each side is continually intersecting, incessantly opening and closing at the point at which a continent of unsuspected meaning opens up, and one must either courageously assume it, or seek vainly to defend against it.
The history of poetry – after Baudelaire – dare I say the history of thought – divides into one or the other camp – of course, by and large only the latter has been granted an official status. But my motivation here isn’t to adjudicate between them, but to emphasize the problem they brush up against – I cannot say share – namely, what Freud called the unconscious. What, in the early years of Surrealism, we sought to classify according to the rubric of automatism – that is, the level of elaborate metaphors and allegories that populate the fluid form of language, and in a sense pull meaning towards them.
For example, the complex allegories of cities and the ancient past one finds in Freud, like Rome, imagined as if all the layers of its history co-existed simultaneously. Language, at its simultaneously most material and immaterial, its most sublime, given it is images, more than words, which manifest a strength of captivation.
And every word contains at once and the same time it is recited a whole, vast genetic history of a long journey from mouth to ear. It is indeed the case that there exists, within the world of language – our world – a long chain stretching backwards into mists of time and ritual into depths where ultimately language as we know it does not even go. It is in this sense one could say of Freud, that in his work the unconscious is like a language. And it was in fact Monsieur Lacan, the one-time doctor of Artaud, who coined this phrase,
It was him, too, who on his visit to America identified the unconscious with Baltimore – Baltimore, the place of death of Poe. Structured like a language, and at the same time like a city, time, a certain form of death – Ball-ti-mort. No doubt – one could elongate this game. One could speculate, for instance, how a city itself may be structured like a language – baroquely, without shame or hesitation – with alleyways and squares, and streets, and parks, and monuments and slums. And indeed vice-versa. But then, of course, the question is which city – and here we observe the many claimants – lined-up like the suitors of Penelope – all of these silver-tongued attempts to argue for the merits of some particular location as a vessel of the global zeitgeist – as if the zeitgeist had a home.
From either side of the Atlantic, we learn that London and New York “compete” for the title of the Global City, as if this was an accolade, while in Europe London rivals Paris, which in turn continentally competes with Amsterdam, Berlin, and Stockholm for importance, wealth and power. I mention this primarily to note the presence of a dynamic of rivalry that exists in language too. There are indeed competing groups or clusters: complexes of concepts, wired to each other, fighting with others – for significance and status, and the privilege to be spoken. On what grounds?
No question, everyone must know their own, and indeed does, but this says nothing. How should I decide? What is the right way to use words to link together ideas and feelings, concepts and associations? On what basis can I make the right decision?
Here, I think, is the eternal question of all poets. What should I say? Of what should I stay silent? What should be said – what is worth saying? Does the vocalization of this very question not already assume too much?
Before proceeding any further – into the dark woods of symbols of linguistic ethics – we should remember that it is only in memory that language recognizes no destruction. In fact – in history, and in the genealogy of our speech, Rome, for instance was destroyed, was sacked, and moreover, from a strict perspective one may contend it truly was this incident – this metonym – that stands at the beginning of our Western civilization, not Rome’s rise. For was it not – as with the death of Baudelaire, the destruction of the center, and the disintegration of the Empire it ruled which led to the creation of the modern European language, and the modern European states – from the vivifying Barbarian invasions?
Humor me at least by permitting me to note the double formulation: that a language is a dialect with an army – and that an army marches on its stomach. Language, too, must not be thought of as existing in the ether, in the clouds, but in terms of the connection it maintains, and must maintain, with its supply lines, with this baggage train of images, and similes, and metaphors which more perceptive listeners may have already had occasion to observe trailing now after the advancing front.
Armies themselves being, of course also vectors through which language spreads – from soldier’s mouths, through friendships they strike-up, in the barracks and the cities that they occupy. Today it is forgotten – but when the men of France were mobilized from every corner of the Third Republic to fight the First World War, it was often almost difficult beyond belief for them all to communicate with one another.
The army was, unquestionably, a homogenizing force in the creation of the nation – just as Napoleon’s had been a century before. But to be sure, I am not here to praise armies. Rather – returning once again to Rome – at least in language, if not in fact – I mean the pulverized Eternal City – where as we know, all roads lead, and the Royal road of the unconscious not least directly – I wished to add that it remains a matter of some controversy amongst those specialized to treat this subject how the evolution of the modern European languages proceeded, yet personally I see no way how the theory of the poet Leopardi can be doubted.
I mean his argument the great mutation happened, not directly through the surviving Latin literature, but from the spoken language of the territory of the Empire, which deviated naturally from the official rules. From which the inescapable conclusion follows – the modern languages of Europe are already forms of creole – because language is a composite – a miscegenated sum of sounds and particles of speech and meaning reconfigured and combined – in the teeth of a perpetually changing context.
All of this, perhaps, is obvious enough – certainly, so long as one has ears to listen. But we would do well to remember this is not the lesson which is taught in schools, where, through property or agency or virtue or some mysterious effect of greatness books are held to speak to books, and literature to literature, down through the generations. And this is not an entirely false picture either – many of us here perhaps have had such an encounter with a classic work or author that it feels as if it must be speaking to us personally, across the decades or the centuries – like a man in Trinidad, for instance, reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
Yet this is not exactly the experience I have in mind. That is – something that must be kept in check, if we may be spared surrendering the point of speech too cheaply. If I could put it things in a slogan, I would say the issue is precisely an idea of language which finds a way to circumvent and sidestep this domain – this domain of experience – through a kind of grim fixation on the words themselves.
And not just an idea, but its concretization – in the gears of this machine devoted to an incredible expenditure of energy which aims at comprehensively and rigorously – there is no other way to say it – using words in order to arrest relations between things.
As if, for example, the central questions which face all of us – the most intimate and vital problems of revolution and desire, could be answered by determining the locus of the meaning of the word critique as used by Marx. Or the complexity of the relationship between speech and writing – the topic, broadly speaking, we are investigating here – could be reduced to some kind of a determination of their underlying metaphysics.
Of course the contemporaneity of this particular dilemma cannot be questioned. We are now living, after all – after all is said and done – in an era impressed by speed-of-light global telecommunications, endless banks of windows linked by networks into each other’s lives, and new blends of speech and writing – information, images and pictures – the likes of which, until extremely recently, could not have been envisioned. For which reason I can only wonder whether yet more disquisition is an appropriate response, or whether we should not submit to a higher power this prejudice – for what else can it be? – that for something to exist, it must be written down, or for an operation to exist – for something to have taken place – it must be recorded; that it must pass through this stage – must enter writing – to be legitimate.
And this despite the fact that the man at the beginning of the adventure of Western philosophy – which, let us remind ourselves, means love of knowledge, not the possession of the same (and to be sure this is an error made in love as well) Socrates – the man whom every genuine philosopher must of necessity identify – never wrote down anything. And this is to say nothing about the contributions of Homer.
But I will say now more about knowledge for now – since I am not so naive as to believe I could serve any purpose by prematurely assaulting the subject, or by telegraphing my attack plans in advance – here is certainly a force that must be taken by surprise. What I am concerned with now is more the myth – the function of the myth – as it plays out with respect to the calculation and pursuit of certain actions – especially regarding artists.
I mean the function of the myth that is desirable – and possible – to pin things down.
Let me recall here the crystalline conception of Artaud in his writings on the theatre for a language “half-way” between gesture and speech. Why this demand for an amphibious species of language? Indeed, not only Artaud, but the American Ezra Pound connects to this same paradigm – in his proposition that V. Lenin invented a new form of communication “halfway” between speech and writing. We find ourselves in something like an interzone of ambiguity between what is being said, and what is being done and demonstrated and performed and acted which defines the situation of communication as a space of language and its possibility.
This situation – which also exists between us – as a question of conveying meanings that one may wonder whether language truly can convey. As a question of economy of means. When Baudelaire reports his opinion that it is “a mark of God’s infinite cunning to have created two creatures so infinitely strange to each other that every step they take towards each other must be a misstep” we are somewhere close to this truth – not by chance some pages later the poet states his adoration for the symmetry of chandeliers.
What is at stake here is the possibility of language seeking resources from something close to hand, but outside of itself. To find again the resources to arrive at a much closer, and more intimate possibility of expression, and therefore of experience. Hence the reason Arthur Cravan, poet and boxer, called his journal Maintenant: literally, the “now” is that which is to hand.
Which returns us – or brings us – of course, strictly-speaking we always have been here – here in the Alliance Francaise, to French, and to the language I am speaking, now, out of a desire to make myself more understood, at the price of an authenticity of this impossibility that unquestionably I feel.
In fact, Leopardi – at several points in his work – announces his hostility to French on the basis of a special defection illustrated by the gulf between the way a word is spelled and how it is pronounced. For my part, my intention here is to not to defend French – at least, not in the manner of an argument conducted with it – no more than I already am – but solely to return only to the dilemma we have been avoiding now, or also answering obliquely for some time.
How is it possible to judge one form of language defective, given the essential relativity inherent in the subject? No doubt there are certain points of capacity, expressiveness, range and precision, through which a language defines itself, or fails to do so.
And let us admit – who has not experienced a situation in which one has found oneself tongue-tied? Or from the other point of view – who has not, as a listener – felt oneself listening, or drifting from a form of speech – a kind of formless form – that seems so absolutely disconnected from the situation that one faces as to effectively present a kind of wall. (And I only can hope that this is the situation at this moment – that my general point is clear.)
There is a language which is no-longer able to discuss reality but only concepts and representations – which cannot express thoughts, but only concepts and representations, and which is no-longer dynamic, subtle or flexible enough to accommodate itself to living reality. This language, which has ceased to be alive – and which therefore with every sound it utters asks the question of why it still is being said.
Today, we find ourselves inside one of the last remaining outposts of a French military-colonial project – which still retains a language, and the territories it covers: Le monde Francophonie. A world that still remains defended by the last men of the garrison: still today in France we have a group of forty individuals– the Academie Francais – les immortals – armed with swords, quite literally, in theory, to protect it.
This institution – which has recently elected a first Haitian member, Dany Laferrière – yet which entraps at the same time a certain question. Where is the true power of language located except through the dexterity by which it is used? It is a matter, not of defense, but of rejuvenation – and perhaps of structure most of all – the structure through which one may still hear swarms.
A multitude – against a structure in which the words seem to detach from feelings – as it they functioned on a higher level, when we must know there is no such thing.
Let me finish with the great statement of Duchamp – I want to grasp things with the mind the way the penis is grasped by the vagina. Essential to appreciate in this – in order to allow oneself to truly be enveloped, or envelop – is to remember that the penis is grasped normally in a such way that allows it to slip back and forth. For Duchamp, words like “truth, art, veracity, or anything are stupid in themselves” because “words are the tools of “to be”—of expression.” The point being that “language is a great enemy.” And a person is defined, I think, by the greatness of his enemies.
It is – truly – language which falsifies the world – our experience and our reality – by imposing on it certain predetermined categories. And this is a falsification that takes place not only in respect to certain words but in every way of speaking that compels one to adopt a stance. This language, which detaches us from the reality which surrounds us – or, the opposite, that which allows to pass through us more easily, discretely and invisibly, to the spaces of mystery and wonder that exist within language, and within cities as well – within reality. An abstract language which conspires always to make words refer to other words instead of passion, and therefore block it.
Or the language one may carry without attracting duty, through the ports one passes, no-longer weighed in place, or fixed by them. If this is an indistinct conclusion, it can be said it probably isn’t worse to end retaining ambiguity. I only hope that in what has proceeded I have been able to come by certain ways around the problem as opposed to through them – or even something through them – and it is a question of mobility and lightness here as well.
So that, if you asked yourself where it would be possible to trace the answer to, it could only be back home.
Thank you for your attention.