Surrealism and Haiti #5: Magic and Voodoo

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 and Messieurs,


Previously I spoke of knowledge – with regards to man – this rope, suspended over the abyss. Today, I will address a theme which I believe is intimately tied-up with the same topic – only pertaining to the shadow, not the substance, if this distinction may be drawn, since what is more substantial than a shadow?


I speak of magic. This little word which contains within itself such volumes. Magic, elements of magic, magic’s nature. And the reality of magic as it interfaces with our own reality – or should I say, realities – the meaning of this concept – and the fact it altered as a consequence of passing through a certain kind of transmutation. A process which, in fact, I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to maintain narrates, obscurely, the greater part of modern history.


Here, as with so many things (which in so many cases, also end in the same place) we start from a misunderstanding; specifically, the climate that, at least in Europe, if not the West as such, surrounds the question and distorts it into something hard to grasp – as if it were no more than a matter of unhealthy interest, or a species of strange joke. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, across the sensible array of what is occasionally referred to as the contemporary world, magic is everywhere, only condensed into signs and rumors, which one must interpret to discern the facts – which means to decode the logic of their distribution, the explanation for the reason why things run a certain way. Like rumors of a waterfall miraculously flowing upwards reveal a deeper intuition of casualty then at first may be supposed: certain territories are closer to the senses, some seem to vanish on exposure of a touch.


In all of this one may presume a deeper logic – but what means are available to trace it? What techniques? Regarding magic, not least for the reason that different people employ this word in a great plurality of ways – and also mean it when employing other words – it’s worth beginning with this word itself. With the alchemy of the word, to redeploy the phrase of Rimbaud. And with my own temptation to conclude – perhaps because I am unsure of my power to use history to conjure the effect I wish to generate – that it would be enough to state the by no means accidental fact that in French magie and image are anagrams.


Still the history is illuminating, not least because it shows the transformation of ideas through time, and transformation is our central topic – which is equally to recognize that history is not beyond the remit of our subject. In fact the “magic” word derives from Persia, and specifically, the Magi – a certain caste, who at some point in the mists of time, beneath the despotism of their King of Kings, became invested with an exclusive power to control religious rites. What these were, or what purpose they served, have now been lost – what is known is that they managed to maintain this exorbitant privilege until the conquest of Persia by the Macedonian army.


With this event – the one that arguably stands furthest back in time to the initiation of the formation that is sometimes called the West – the word moved West – whether still connected to the terms which had produced it, or now in affiliation to a different set of concepts altogether, it’s impossible to say. Instead, let me restrict myself to saying that this mysterious movement Westward of a strange body from the East – whether a doctrine or a man – may be observed to be recurrent in the history ever since – in Western history in general, and in the history of magic in particular – to Alexandria, and Antioch, and Rome.


For three hundred years – across the ancient world, into the period of the Roman Empire, the mysteries of Egypt merged with magic, neoplatonism, alchemy and kabbala to develop a syncretic form of thought arranged around a certain notion of original material. This fundamental form of matter, a microcosm, and a macrocosm – the one the kernal of the other – and the possibility of endless analogical, correspondential transmigration.


This world was ended by barbarians and Christianity. But it was not destroyed completely. Formulae remained preserved – certain ones, for unknown reasons, or for none – translated into Arabic after the conquests of Islam, or copied into codices and archived, and forgotten in the vast libraries of Byzantium, thereby enabling their excavation centuries later as Europe stirred from its own period of sleep in the thirteenth, and again, the fifteenth centuries. It is a historical cliché – a cliché of historical analysis – to be sure, to zero-in monomaniacally on the slogan of the Renaissance – the rebirth. It is doubtless, too, a certain product of desire – of the gaze of an observer turned either one way, or another – to locate the vital truth in a long distant past – and what is more vital then rebirth?


Nonetheless, it is a fact that the most famous texts we know today of Aristotle and of Plato were lost to European minds for something like a thousand years. And not only them, but also Plotinus and Zoroaster, and supreme amongst them all, at least for a brief moment – Hermes Trimestigus – this sublime fiction of a master, whom Aragon, Soupault and myself saluted in our early incarnations as the editors of the admittedly well-bred journal Littérature. It was indeed Hermes Trimestigus whom the great scholars of the Renaissance – Marsilio Ficino, for example, the translator of Plato and eternal specialist in melancholy – designated as the greatest of all sages – an accolade no less impressive for his likely absence of historical existence.


For Ficino too, and his contemporaries and successors – Giordano Bruno, the Englishmen John Dee, and Walter Raleigh, and all the known and unknown parties grouped around the efflorescent School of Night – magic was regarded as the highest form of knowledge, even as the queen of science, vouchsafed in its power by no less then Aristotle, whose long letters to his pupil Alexander on the use of magic in the government of global empire in the Secretum Secretorum were amongst the best-known and most-widely copied of medieval manuscripts. In a Renaissance cosmology which re-appropriated the ideas of Alexandria – a cosmology which held to no hard, fast position of an essential gulf between an outside and an inside of perceptions – a weltanschauung in which, to paraphrase the provocations of the contemporary philosopher Jan Slaby: mind was outside – magic was the means for linking disparate phenomenon together – things appreciated as not disparate at all.


What, in short, the people of this epoch thought – this thought that we no-longer think, or at least dare not say aloud, for fear of censure – which today only romantic poets and madmen dare to dream – was that all that was perceptible could be regarded as a message in an elaborate hierarchy of communications.


Between the sixteenth and nineteenth century, however – and analogously to what transpired with Surrealism between 1945 and now – this thought was disappeared. According to the story that we learn in schools – it was superseded by the onwards march of Science, just as Surrealism, I have heard malicious persons argue, was superseded by world-conquering conceptual art.


On both counts, the gap in logic is transparent. There is, at least, no way to clearly see how one may legislate objectively, for objectivity, as a more expansive world-view then all others without endorsing at the same time a tautology. It is in fact impossible to even frame the proposition – beyond asserting the dynamic of a certain evolutionary advantage achieved by the supporters of the winning paradigm – what today we label science – in the arms race of philosophy. An advantage won, I hesitate to note, along the same lines as before – namely, on the terrain of power, not of truth.


Yet one can also not deny that science – modern science – with its mania for measurement and repetition has not truly entered all the spaces that magic occupied, or was able to slip through. Instead these spaces have been filled by varied forms of spirituality that trace their antecedence back to magic but never reach their destination – reversals which turn tables but leave everything in place.


Despite the tricks the current state of things plays on perception, the domain of magic was not in fact the supernatural, as we understand this term today, no more than surrealism should be regarded as overtly concerned with the odd or the excessive in reality. Rather, it unfolded in a less constrictive sphere of nature – of the idea of nature, or of natures – that we hold onto so joylessly today as a kind of object or resource to be exploited, instead of, as the Greeks thought, many natures, individual, and specific to each creature, each living thing, or man. That is – an understanding of reality that incorporates, but goes beyond what one measures and may be achieved via objective means.


Ladies and gentlemen, ask yourself only this – this riddle of the Sphinx – who, what kind of man, or woman, could maintain in seriousness that there is nothing in experience that can’t be measured – that all dimensions of experience, of one’s experience, may be configured as a quantity – may be compared to any other – may be priced – from the encounter with the marvelous to the experience of love? Once we recognize that the answer, is, of course, contemporary man – that this is indeed the hegemonic point of view of our society – we will have come close to understanding the extreme narrowness of vision that substitutes for understanding in what passes for the mind of contemporary man.


Newton’s sleep, Blake called it – although Newton himself was known to work at night. It’s self-evident, or should be, that there is an aspect of reality – of life – that goes beyond the calculus of gains and losses: the greater part, as well as the most fragile.


The question is no more than to defend it – while remembering there are defenses which cause damage – as the perspective from the heart of life, rather than a deviation from an imaginary norm.


This was indeed the project of Surrealism – and so it remains. And it remains as well my point of view that this norm, this notion of normality, so often spoken-of, or leaned-on, or asserted or insisted on – which seems to me the sicker of the options. I refer to all those curious enough to follow-up the phrase of the great scholar Couliano – a man just as mysteriously assassinated as the poet of Apollinaire – wingless fly. At the tail end of five hundred years of political and social and intellectual and cultural evolution – evolution which, we must remember, Darwin knew to be directionless, and by no means implying spiritual or moral progress – contemporary man is closer to a wingless fly then to the master of the worlds of the imagination projected by the Renaissance.


And here again we notice magic foreshadowing Surrealism. Just as there are animals that feast on flies, there is a form of power flowing through techniques that once upon a time were theorized magically, as certain operations taking place across a chain, but now can no-longer be theorized but instead invite only disbelief. As if the effort to address the interpenetration of the realities which manipulate and rule us, without one being able to control them, was inferior to the project to exploit them.


To be precise, it’s not only a question of a purely formal correspondence, or the notion of a system of beliefs that would replace the reigning logic – an operation that would ultimately come down to a retooling. But something closer to the refinement of a certain spirit, or a consciousness of the existence of this spirit, and the myriad of ways through which it moves. This spirit which it is possible to see developing, in fits and starts, with trepidation, in the interior of particular occultist groups throughout the nineteenth century.


It is desirable, I think, to designate this term – occultism – both because it has a more specific meaning then the use to which it normally is put, and because of its importance to Surrealism.


To be clear – it refers to a phenomenon that grew-up in the nineteenth century – in the the teeth of a triumphant scientific rationalism and positivism – as the expression of the consciousness of the fundamental triviality of that conception in addressing the realities around us. Like in the thirteenth century, and the fifteenth, it was the question of a rediscovery – the possibility of rediscovery – of a certain form of buried knowledge – indeed, the very possibility of rediscovery being itself a revolutionary act seen from the perspective of a present which never ceases to declare that whatever is good exists, and whatever exists is good.


In the first place – we are dealing with the recognition that how reality appears to us is not complete, that there is an aspect missing, that there is the possibility of finding something lost. In the second – an attempt to fill that loss, or at least to limn its contours. It was both – the one and then the other – which inspired the occultists of the nineteenth century. Their affirmation of belief in ancient mysteries and vanished knowledge – as well as distant spiritual authorities operating on an altogether different plane. One can plainly see to what extent the combination undermines the mantra chanted endlessly throughout the nineteenth century – of progress, while subverting simultaneously the insistent claims of temporal powers to absolutely incarnate the truth.


And perhaps this point has been also misconstrued, in the first place by themselves. Indeed – one can potentially see something like the revenge of magic on the occultists – in this dynamic of authority and mastery which they began to play with through the structures of a kind of spontaneity which opened out into a power game to remove the ground beneath their feet. Members of particular organizations found themselves sucked into a vortex of achievement, as they vied for the sublime honor of being secretary to ghosts.


The central point cannot be emphasized enough. What we are dealing with are forces one cannot control, by definition, one cannot schematize, by definition, that one cannot mechanically repeat to generate the same result. Just as when one recites a poem, the meaning is dependent on the context – so that a different sense emerges when one is speaking to a different person, or is speaking in a different place, or at a different time, one may not just repeat the same sequence of words, like pushing buttons; better, one must allow oneself to see – and to confirm – the way in which one’s own buttons are pushed.


Already here one sees the constellation leading to Surrealism. Certainly – the influence of certain forms of esotericism and occultism on Surrealism was never secret – even if this influence was at first impressed on us through other means. But slowly – as a consequence of the embrace of exoteric modes of politics by Aragon and Eluard, and their consequent rejection of Surrealism, it became decisive.


By the time I issued – in the Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1936 – a call I had not yet begun to fully understand myself – for the occultation of Surrealism – a certain set of themes had begun to occupy me, if not exercise me, the magnitude of which initially I had not been able to perceive – at least in this clear form. On the one hand, questions pertaining to politics – questions of particular and obvious importance at that time, although perhaps today they are no less pressing, of how to hold together a collective body so that it retained the capability for flexibility without dispersing altogether. And on the other hand – a problematic of desire – of the transmutation of desire – the problem of its destiny on exposure to a subject who is able to perceive it, but not addressed by it directly. I mean the general public – hence the other side of that equation – the approval of the public must be avoided like the plague.


Not the public, to be clear, but their approval. That is, the attitude whereby one courts approval. The desire to be liked – to be liked by an audience. An attitude all too familiar to us today. And here again we re-enter the domains of magic.


Magic understood as corresponding to psychology – seen as a science of the imagination, and also, as in the phrase of the American Illuminate R. Wilson, “the organization of the imagination.” The question is indeed one of the right attitude one should strike up – the principle on which this organization may be undertaken, and whether it emerges from interior necessity, or is imposed from an outside.


As I said, already in 1923, Aragon, Soupault and myself included “Hermes Trismegistus” in the pantheon of great Surrealist precursors we published in Littérature as ‘”Erutarettil” together with Cornelius Agrippa, Joseph Peladan, and Nicholas Flamel, whose unappeasable ghost, they say, still haunts the part of Paris known as La Boucherie. ”Erutarettil” of course being an anagram of literature – this being our point too, since literature, for us, was never thought of as our primary activity, or the idol of our efforts, but regarded only as a door to greater freedom.


In Hermes, it seemed to us, we’d found a character, like Fantomas, who, wrapped in myths embodied not just the surviving works associated with him, or the fragmentary thoughts these works contained – like the phrase “as above, so below” – but the sense of a collective myth. The true sense – as a fantasy dispersed, and shared.


It was in the respect alone I was able to agree with Carrouges’s assessment in Les donées fondamentals du Surréalisme that “as one penetrates more and more profoundly into surrealism, one realizes that hermeticism is the cornerstone that inspires its basic concepts.” Certainly it’s never easy to precisely trace all of the influences which support the evolution of a form of thought – one must always allow for the effect of the invisible – the unperceived. And in fact I think it would be more accurate to say that the Surrealist cornerstone was made up of a trinity – romanticism, whose prehensile tail it was, Dada, whose spirit of revolt it adopted, and the dynamic psychiatry which we encountered in the war, and through it – trance states, hysteria, hypnosis, sonamnbulism, and especially the idea of the translucidity of the unconscious.


Romanticism brought us esoteric motifs – and let us not forget the profound interest in occultist texts maintained by Rimbaud. Dada brought us spiritual coherence and consistency, while medicine gave to us the possibility of diagnosing the collective maladies with which we were all afflicted. That is, it gave us confidence to place a stethoscope against the beating heart of our society, and a Hippocratic oath that we occasionally remembered.


Naturally the real point is none of these variegated streams were truly far apart. Even if at certain moments of high drama, we believed we were arriving at a novel synthesis of elements – the opium of our age – from the point of view of history seen in the long term, one may more persuasively allege that we were recombining parts that always had belonged together, and had only artificially been separated, as they now have been again.


That is – magic, psychology and poetry – and the conception of a language that was dynamic in its very being – that did not belong to a specific sphere, but quite the opposite, belonged to none – and therefore could pass through other rooms and places to the territories on the far side.


So it was we found ourselves embarking on a journey in which the final destination was unknown – to us – but which in fact followed a certain route. First, through The Magnetic Fields, this book of automatic writing which I authored with Soupault, in which as Louis Aragon observed, “Surrealism was invented. The thing itself. Not the word” And subsequently through the “l’époque des sommeils” which we embarked upon the night of September 25 1922 together with Rene Crevel, Max Morise and Robert Desnos, dimming the lights as Crevel put himself into a state of self-hypnosis with a technique that he’d acquired from a medium named Madame D.


Later, Ernst, Paul Eluard, Aragon, Benjamin Peret, Pierre Naville, Giorgio de Chirico and Man Ray – all were sucked into the vortex, into an atmosphere – to take the phrase of my first wife – like “living simultaneously in the present the past and the future.” It was a period of being dazed and broken, exhilaration and catastrophe – which I was forced to bring to a conclusion as it began escaping our control. In all this, I believe it is now clear – we were ourselves, unwittingly perhaps, participating in something indissociable from a magical rite. Hence the internal logic, a sense of psychological and social escalation – this process of gestation and self-experiment through which, I think, Surrealism was truly born – not as a word, or even as a thing itself, but as a practice.


An activity. A scene. The only form of social being ultimately capable of granting life – given the performance, the audience, and the performers follow from it, simultaneously – subsequently it was no more than a question of transporting the energy thus trapped to a different, and more open surrounding, like the transplantation of a certain rare, and wild flower which had grown nonetheless to an immense height. This was the point. That we came to understand, intuitively, how and by what measures it was possible to meet ourselves as beings like ourselves, but different to ourselves, on an altogether different plane, which was yet still in this world and, armed with this self-knowledge, found the motivation to go on.


By the time we made it through the thirties however forces stronger then ourselves were gathering. The fate of Artaud stands as sigil. By April 1938, he was receiving shock treatments in the Center Psychiatrique Sainte-Anne, where he remained for the next seven years, composing spells and curses on charred scraps of papers. Two years later, by which point Europe was facing a calamity whose truly horrifying scale even we had been unable to imagine, I was in Marseille, Artaud’s place of birth, waiting at the Air-Bel, playing cards.


We were now, in effect depressed, but at the same time conscious that the task we thought was ours had changed – that the problem now was not the vitality of our society, but the very survival of humanity. It was this dawning consciousness which inspired us to return inwards – to search for an esoteric idea of the world at the junction where the ideas of poets, and those of visionary social thinkers meet – to set-out a more long-term plan for liberation.


And with that in mind – to close this talk – without a conclusion, and more a sense of a beginning then ending – I can return to this phrase – the occultation of surrealism – to emphasize its almost submerged connotations. What, in the end, did this phrase mean? Does it mean now? Three things, perhaps – betrayal, disappearance – considered as a prelude to an ultimate renewal and triumph, arriving to the situation in which we find ourselves today. The state of play in which Surrealism appears completely integrated into contemporary culture, yet paradoxically appears increasingly subversive. And this will be the topic of the following session.


Thank you very much.

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