Surrealism and Haiti #2: The City

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. Image: Skopje, Macedonia.]

Ladies and Gentlemen,


In my previous lecture I spoke of the passage of time, and the past – certain recondite dimensions in which the present is informed by the past, and the indisputable truth that Surrealism does not belong there. Today, in Cabaret, which was once called Duvalierville, I will speak about space. Species of spaces, and especially, the genus populating this territory that is close to my heart, namely, the one which changes faster than the human heart: the City.


But where does one begin from with the city? Where does one start? To be sure, to even speak in such a generalizing way appears provocative. As if it was possible – or indeed desirable – to generalize the power of this category – the City – placing beneath it all the disparate elements composing what a lived existence in a city means. Is there a unitary city-form, embracing all the others. And what kind of embrace could this be?


Perhaps one may propose a certain singularity of combination – of actuality and possibility, and memory, of streets, and scenes recalled of different times of day or night, the light from an apartment window, which one looked out from with a friend or lover – or some uncertain mixture of the two – walks taken with them, or without them, all these coincidences, sentiments, and ghosts of chances missed or taken: this sequence of experiences that can never fully be composed. And if I may repeat an adage, I could add that on this topic, more than others, one is compelled to recognize that one begins from where one stands – that is, from what one is standing on – from where one is.


And so here we are – in Duvalierville – that is, in the ruins of an iteration of a certain kind of effort recurrent throughout history – which even could be argued to define it. This drive to monumentalize, to immortalize oneself, by establishing, or conquering, a city. Certainly, the catalogue of cities named after famous men, or by them, is too long to exhaust: Rome, Washington DC, Ho Chi Minh City, Stalingrad, Saint Petersburg – this last one dug out of the swamps by men with their bare hands – by nameless men. And behind them all, that most legendary author, Alexander, ‘friend of man’, and mother of three dozen cities, and destroyer of a dozen others.


The eye exists, in this sense also, in a savage state, both in terms of what it looks at, and in terms of what it sees. Suffice it to recall the legendary delegation sent from Athens in the first years of Alexander’s great career enjoining him to spare the city since he had already sacked Thebes, according to the argument that Thebes and Athens were the eyes of Greece, and if he razed them both, Greece would be blind.


The naming of the city, the inscription of the name into the urban fabric makes the legend real, something sacred and symbolic and theatrical, within which the lives of citizens are given scope for drama. In Alexandria itself, the original and greatest, the archaeologists now believe the street plan was devised so a particular effect of suffused light would flood the streets on the illustrious founder’s birthday.


And it would be certainly remiss not to remark the cult of Alexander survives into the present – in the city known as Skopje, Macedonia. Born out of the wreckage of the Former Yugoslav Republic through the affirmation of the legacy conveyed precisely by this storied name of Macedonia, bestowed by the Croatian Tito on a certain part of Serbia, today the city is a kind of Alexanderland, a play of illusions and phantasms. A giant statue of the warrior – and his mother, and his father – looms over buildings clad in neo-classical facades.


Here one sees an effort to incorporate a city into another story altogether, a history as long as the history of man. To remain within the neighborhood, one recalls that it was on his journey back from Alexandria when Flaubert spotted his fantastical example of the personage who had written his own name on Pompey’s Column: Thompson from Sunderland.


Like Alexander, Pompey was “The Great”; Thompson, by contrast, was an idiot; such was Flaubert’s judgement, and today the name of Thompson survives through it alone. But who deserves to be remembered? And for what? For myself, I do not think that it is a coincidence Alexander’s name was connected by the Greeks to Herostratus, this figure of supreme dramatic irony, this pyromaniac – whom, it is said, destroyed the temple of Diana at Ephesus, one of the wonders of the ancient world, on the day of Alexander’s birth and who, rather than deny his crime, proclaimed it openly – declaring as his motive the desire to link his name forever to the wonder.


And in this, he did succeed. Outraged, the Ephesians not only sentenced Herostratus himself to death, but additionally forbid, on penalty of death the mention of his name. Yet the interdiction failed, which goes to show: there is a law of fame, or infamy, or rumor, across which civil writs don’t run – a truth from which one may extract the understanding that the question where one is and what one does – of what one wants – is always at the same time who one is.


Within the limits of the city, the constitution of an urban space depends on the constitution of the citizen. The city wraps itself around each of its inhabitants, folding itself into our specific characteristics – our wealth or poverty, our race and sex. I did not mention this fact earlier. But it is worthwhile to say – for all the cities named for men, I can think of only very few named after women.


And let me pause here for the moment on the matter. With the belated sense of recognition that follows from the realization that one has failed to see something for some time, which now jumps out at you. Let me say this – recently I found myself astonished, walking one night near the Rue Fontaine with Caitlin Lunaire when first one man, then another, reached out from the darkness – and tried to grab her.


Following a period in which I’d spent some time in Amsterdam – with its monstrous, industrial red light district and concentric canals, like those of hell – I found myself provoked to thought – how was it that these men felt entitled to treat a woman in this way? Let me add – when I mentioned what I’d witnessed to another friend, I was stunned a second time to learn of how blasé she was – the experience apparently is normal even in parts of New York City. The source of the problem, she suggested, lay in a culture promoting women’s bodies as nothing more than objects – a culture visible somewhat in Western art, of naked women and clothed men (to be sure, one struggles to remember a male nude in art between the Renaissance and post-war photography) and the West, of course, is the not the worst offender.


But there is a deeper truth as well. It is a question of how one’s own attitude and actions appear in one’s own eyes – but at the same time, of how one appears to others and the fact that one does not appear quite as oneself. Let me recall another period I spent walking in a city with a friend, a great walker, a philosopher, and a small man, whose small stature tends to generate attention.


To be specific – excess attention – wanted and unwanted, a surplus which construes him as a sort of category, rather than an independent person. Walking with him, I observed and shared it, the power which it gave us in some social situations – the power to subvert the categorical, which he uses with great verve – but certainly his vulnerability in certain others. What I understood was that he occupies an interstitial status in the minds of others, leading to an undeniable overfamiliarity which they assume. In their readiness to see him as figure who, in some way, belongs to their perception – as if he’d walked out of their unconscious, he functioned as a kind of mental object which they found themselves unable to distinguish from reality.


It is a question faced in different ways by all of us – the degree of opportunity and danger created by our power to attract attention, but not control it – based on how we look, and act in contexts that we can’t control. This split identity in which one is both an object and subject simultaneously – one, and not regarded as one – defines I think the fundamental feature of the city.


There are those who one would like to meet, and those one would prefer not to – those who you desire something from, and those demanding something from you; there is desirable and undesirable attention – and even a desire which exists as a kind of mirror image of what one believes another wants – and today entire cities built according to this principle, as the captive globe transfixes itself with the substance of desire as it composes a system of relations between all the people in a city, refracted endlessly, and the square of their relations; desiring desire almost – as if desire was itself an object that one could possess – through pure consumption – just as contemporary terrorism seeks the same through death.


We notice in both cases an entanglement in mimetic spirals, seeking out, and being rewarded with attention from the communicative forces of the enemy it is supposedly engaged in fighting, but is plainly parasitic on. These images – which beaming themselves back down to Earth from satellites in space – inspire their own additive production.


It was in this respect that Aristotle, Alexander’s tutor, whose own infamy was such that in the Middle Ages he was known by the sobriquet of the Philosopher – described the city as the expression of human nature. That is, the expression of a conflicted nature, the ground zero where the contest to define this nature is played out, a negotiation and a struggle, playing out in space – defensive space, and predatory space, of threat, as well as opportunity, for whatever forms the soul of man can take.


One recalls the depth of intimacy between philosophy and space. It is not a coincidence how many philosophies of the ancient world – the Stoics, for example – were named after the spaces where they met and gathered. Indeed, from either point of view, the city grants the very possibility of philosophy – of the nature of humanity as a form of speculation – this form emerging from the kind of space a city hosts.


And thus one sees the difficulty of insisting on a philosophy of the city. As if such a thing could be detachable from the specific space it stems from, and installed above all spaces as their ruler. In the final instance, what else would this operation be, besides insisting on the sovereign rights of a particular discursive zone, the University, for instance, above the others? It’s not only a question of knowing where we’re going, or even where we’ve been – of drawing up a map – but that in our movements through the city we are also passing through a space of impressions and memories and symbols, dispersed through space, through memories it occupies and the secrets it conceals.


What is the fabric of this space today? Aristotle’s aphorism yields to an additional interpretation when considered with the emphasis, not on the city, but the nature. We are indeed now living through an epoch in which the sphere of human nature is transforming into another kind of question. It is sufficient to remind ourselves that the word – milieu – used now to describe the fundamental zone of urban space originated in biology – entering into general usage as the result of an approach to city structure which began to reinforce itself in the age of Baudelaire.


The proposition from the perspective of the nineteenth century was straightforward – authorities began to take in an interest in the city conceived from the perspective of the worker’s health; that is, from their productive and in the end their military capacities. In the same decade as the boulevards were being cut into medieval streets to facilitate the possibility of cavalry charges should the workers start to suffer ideological afflictions, it was considered necessary to secure enough light and fresh air for them so that disease would not destroy them – given that it was their shoulders after all that supported the industrial base of the State.


It was at this point that the city as we know it was created – the city conceived as the supreme power of our civilization. Not only economically, or even merely culturally – but mythically, in the poetry of Baudelaire for instance, who was amongst the first to see the newness and originality of the emerging sphere – already in the Fleurs du Mal, and even more so in the prose poems of Spleen de Paris. Rimbaud, during the fateful years of the Paris commune, heard the music of the swarms of the metropolis to come. In London, Charles Dickens’ legendary nocturnal walks stoked the basis of a claim that I am at least tempted to make here on his behalf – he was a Surrealist in his walking. And in the Saint Petersburg of Dostoevsky, characters are endlessly encountering each another on the street, often literally colliding.


In each case, there can be no question, that the city found a spirit and a motivation all its own, in plenitude and emptiness, in the oscillating rhythm of a certain stream of people, in crowds, and empty space. And now I wonder whether it was truly a coincidence that the modern city and photography developed at almost the same time.


Suffice it to recall the famous photographs of Paris shot by Atget, of empty streets resembling crime scenes – this empty city we encountered as Surrealists in the twenties – a city emptied of inhabitants after the slaughter of the war, almost deserted – which presented something like a canvas.


For Aragon – as well as for myself – it was a question of a city underneath the city – or beside it – an intensity and magic and vitality localizable in chance encounters, which reveals itself to individuals who dare to search. The city was empty – but it was full of possibility.


This conception, against that of Monsieur Jeanneret, that “we must kill the street.” Indeed, it was this second notion that gave birth to Duvalierville – this cause of separating and distinguishing the functions of the city – human functions – in the service of efficiency. To make the city workable, but no-longer livable, at least as before – to separate recreation, work and romance so they no-longer intertwine. It may be seen, recalling Aristotle once again, that this project represented nothing more, or less, than an attempt to separate and divide human nature – the unity of human nature – to divide it into separate schemes and functions – so as to make the human being more manipulable, more plastic.


Not, to be sure, or not exactly, through the separation that Le Corbusier envisioned, but by inflation – a kind of hypertrophism – of specific functions blown-up at the same time as their off-shoring or removal from the naked city space. Desire. Pleasure. And the forms that they’ve acquired following their transplantation to alternative environments, subject to different rules and resources – like plants – I should say sunflowers – exiled from the city to a distant zone of space.


I am speaking of the internet – of cyberspace – and its effect upon the city. Certainly, the exact effects are hard to measure. But there is no question, I believe, that the city has transformed under the impact of its lightness, almost beyond recognition.


In the sixties, and once again shortly before his death – the “Situationist” Guy Debord found a concept which succeeded in lending at least some measure of coherence to this dynamic – the society of the spectacle – this spectacle of man himself, beamed back across a zone of incoherence. The city turns into a theatre with no actors, but only an audience, observing its own incoherence transmitted back to it, drowning out the infinitely variegated forms which first gave rise to the city into a single one.


All of the infinitely varied forms of love the Greeks described by many names, depending on their mood become a kind of unit to possess – or lack – held in reserve, comparable to any other, to be swallowed, or regarded, or destroyed, depending on caprice, instead of fortune. So that it comes to be believed that because a stranger seems a certain way, there has to be a quantitative explanation – just as the Greeks detected virtue in a face we see a number – transmitting meaning, as if had been judged by fate, and not by luck.


Of course – the city creates both – it both expresses and reflects human reality – in the encounters it facilitates, the marvels it enables. Without a doubt, even if the city really has been pulverized I cannot not believe that there remains an aspect of the human spirit that cannot be crushed, or shattered – by virtue of some sheer recalcitrance, or an as yet unknown capacity whose powers are still barely sensed – and even conceivably located outside of science. The question is no more than: on what terms? Or whose?


It is not solely about power – a term and a concept on which one can get fixated, just like the thing itself – but of the power of myth inherent in a city’s spirit, accessed on the street, and through it. That is, a certain kind of quality which maintains itself in every interaction, or at least contains in embryo this possibility.


Believe me, I am not so naive as to delude myself that the marvelous is always present, that it can be found everywhere, but I retain the firm conviction that it may be anywhere – that it must be. And that too, it cannot be the subject of a form of state production, but must find a consistency outside of efforts of control.


It is for this reason I cannot accept, because of all the legalistic implications – the shadow of a tribunal looming – the idea of the right to the city – this right of which these days certain activist professors speak. Who would bestow it – except the same authorities who the power of the city must exceed – indeed even pitch itself against?


Here in Duvalierville, one can see the apex of the triangle occupies a different place completely – outside of determination: a zone of freedom. It is here where our relations to the city must be located – must be created – not in the sense of a possession we could have, or not have, but a space one may move into, a connection one could make, the fleeting impression one may choose to pursue.


I will never forget, I think, the phrase of the American poet – Denver is lonesome for her heroes. And, when all is said and done, what indeed exists beyond it? Who grants to a city the space of possibility it shelters besides for poets, who, with audacity, and boldness – seize it for themselves – and at the same time open it for others. It is a right one cannot win – or lose – but only take.


Thank you very much.

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