Surrealism and Haiti #7: The Future

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 Messieurs,

I opened this series of talks by reflecting on the past – December 1945 – the last time that I visited this island – and the decades between then and now. That is, I started with, or I should say, from, the past. The past within me, from a spirit of necessity, given that one cannot dispute, and therefore must accept that to know where one is now, and going, and can do – it is crucial above everything to know where one has been – whom one has haunted, and by whom one is haunted by.

Where one still is. Even if, and paradoxically, by the same stroke, and with the taking of another step – into, by definition, the unknown – all this must be forgotten, consigned to oblivion, like a declaration of love, made too hastily, can produce only the iciest silence – before being granted the highest dignity of being forgotten entirely.

Today, of course this lecture – this first lecture – is itself stranded in the past, and soon my presence here will be as well. What will remain once I’ve departed, when all is said and done? Here, today, in this, my last address, I feel I’m honor-bound to put the question on the table. The question of the future, the question it presents – or it insists upon; to be sure, the future of Surrealism. But equally, the future into which we all are hurtling, Surrealist, unprepared or not, or not yet – which comes to us without expectation, which is uncertain, but inevitable.

Who can ever say for certain who, or what, might be around the corner – a new love, even a great one – or a new friend, or something less worth celebrating – a calamitous event, or an obscure disaster. At the same time, from the perspective of the present, it is hard not to reflexively place faith in continuity – in the conception of a sequence working itself out from premises already perceivable to us right now, from our expectations and our plans. This vision – of everything – remaining more or less as everything already is and was.

So much is the reason why in French we have two different words for these two meanings of the future – la futur, and l’avenir – to come. And this is certainly much more than pure contrivance. Indeed, I would go so far as to say it points to something fundamental in our experience of time – to the situation registered by Hegel’s incomparable description of the Owl of Minerva, rewritten in darker ink by Nietzsche, being that bird which only flies at night.

Our condition on this planet is one of beings who live forwards, while understanding only backwards, if at all. It was the philosopher Hegel, no less, who declared that the only thing that one can learn from history is that nobody learns anything from history. And here I find myself reminded – and believe it make sense to recall – off-hand although this reference may at first appear – a certain phrase, delivered in the inflight movie which I found myself watching on the way here – on the plane which brought me back to Haiti, which also flew at night. Depression is the inability to imagine the future.

The film was an American thriller focussed on psychological maladies – it was completely forgettable, indeed, I have forgotten even the name. But the phrase struck my mind. This description – I think mostly by virtue of the certainty it seemed to trap, this kind of lapidary compactness, which it is easy to mistake for truth. In fact, the truth is somewhat different: there is a kind of power of depression, which results when one’s imagination of the future becomes too powerful, too strong, too set – when one surrenders the ability, as they say, to remain within the present moment – when one loses the ability to open oneself out to the world.

And one can be oppressed, of course, as well by one’s imagination of the past as well – perhaps this even is more common. In fact – I’ve heard it said that men suffer more intensively from their fantasies about the past, and women from their fantasies about the future – but it arrives to the same place, that is, this whole vast domain of fantasy and phantasms, the psyche and the imagination – to the checkpoint of, let’s say a proposition.

As some of you may know, I started, if not my career, then at least my adult life, in medicine – if that is not too pretentious an expression for the training I received during the war. Later, at the Salpêtrière in Paris, from the textbooks of Janet, the celebrated student of Charcot, Soupault and myself took the concept of l’automatisme psychologique, which proved so decisive in the first years of Surrealism, and subsequently so completely misunderstood. L’automatisme never was intended to mean mechanism. Rather, our aim was to highlight a conception closer to what philosophers call monism, akin in certain aspects to the theory of Spinoza: that certain psychic maladies and disorders could not be seen only as imbalances of individuals but related back to social and political dynamics.

There was, indeed, so we believed, a dialectical relationship which held, no less mysteriously then a relation of causality, or indeed casualty, between reason and the madness of the world. In fact, not only Soupault and myself, but also Aragon, Peret, Pierre Naville and Desnos, and even Ernst, undertook some scattered studies into medicine. From which fact of our biographies – as well as our collective and profound interest in Freud, several historians of the Surrealist movement have found themselves concluding that Surrealism possessed a definite medical character.

I do not deny this. But as in medicine, there is a danger here of drawing-up a diagnosis based on a list of symptoms, without considering the cause of their relations to each other – and thus arriving at a label, not a cure.

Let us not forget this was the period in which the Futurists of Marinetti were proclaiming in the pages of Le Figaro that war was the world’s great hygiene – oracularly, five years before the first shots were fired of a conflict that would decimate the population of the European continent, and thirty years before a still more brutal repetition. Did either war improve our culture’s health? Around the same time, psychoanalysis was setting-up a therapeutic practice based on Dr. Freud’s discoveries – this practice that we know today as part of a therapeutic culture of the self, and the French Communist Party were creating, under discipline from Moscow, a species of committed intellectual akin to political inquisitors – doctors of the soul charged with eliminating deviation, and ideological descrudence, at any cost; today, such persons are more numerous then ever.

Surrealism took another point of view – our ambition, despite the allegations of malicious, or let’s just say misguided characters, was never sympathetic to authoritarianism in any form – it never was our mission to impress a Surrealist doctrine upon the masses as some kind of universal key, but instead a question of maintaining access to this key, for us – which meant also sharing it, continually refinding it, and losing it again.

To be sure, what one hides is never more nor less then what one finds. And what one hides from oneself is worth neither more nor less than what one allows others to find.

But my intention was to speak about the future – and here I have found myself instead speaking of the Futurists – of Marinetti, and an old war, and of those for whom the very possibility of there being any future whatsoever could not but demand the sacrifice, even the absolute destruction of the present – in the name of one to come. As if the future was a demon who required blood and ruins to appear – the conversion of all living human beings into dead ones, the substitution of all buildings into shells – until finally there is nothing but the future, as the present is annihilated.

For the clarity with which he states his logic – a logic which does not belong to him alone – one may forgive Marinetti, at least in part. But the presence of a missing element within his formulation should also not go unobserved. The reality, of course – that the truth of time as we experience it is only ever present – only ever now. This sequence of nows – one following the other. In fact – it isn’t possible to experience the past, or future – only the present, part of which we call the future, and part the past. But all of it, all that we could know, and know already – exists right now.

Let me evoke, a final time – the memory of my friend Vaché – the determination he arrived at to live his life recklessly. It was unquestionably an act and a decision. At the same time, Dada was registering in Zurich and Berlin, and eventually in Paris a kind of cry whose exact meaning we were at first unable to determine. Of pain? Of freedom? Even joy? Let us say no more that it was the kind of cry one cannot make so long as one remains anesthetized beneath a surgeon’s knife.

Marinetti demanded also the cementing of the canals of Venice, and the destruction of museums. I cannot help but think that out of all his statements, it is this one which today carries the most resonance, but on a different basis then the one which he supposed. One can in fact see today museums engaging in a kind of self-destruction – a suicide – as they reach beyond themselves to seek a purpose in the present tense, luring themselves – and others – into the quicksands of a useless project.

Meanwhile, we are hurtle onwards into a future stretching out before us like an endless road, without a clear idea of where we’re going, or even how we’ll know when we’ve arrived. And, with this in mind perhaps I may be granted dispensation to end this series by making reference to a specific piece of work in a museum that, before I left the art world altogether, I had the opportunity to see.

This was in the Netherlands, where I had gone intent on visiting Bastiaan van der Velden, the director of the Bureau of Surrealist Research in the Hague. I was on my way back from Utrecht, facing a space of time between two trains, With several hours placed at my disposal, walking from the station concourse I noticed I was outside a museum – and realized I could find no reason not to enter. So I bought a ticket and I went inside.

It was a provincial art museum – one of those institutions that one occasionally encounters in some towns in Europe, containing treasures inexplicably acquired at some point – in this case, some first-class El Lissitzkys. Naturally I felt disposed to reacquaint myself with the works of this unparalleled genius, but the displays were not what I had hoped.

In a word, it seemed as if at some point the museum had caught the virus of this kind of exhibitionism in which the curators fool themselves into believing that the visitors have come for them. Out of a curious effort to make his works contemporary – a revealing insecurity, since if works of art are anything, they must be timeless – the museum had asphyxiated them under a blanket of excessively designed, non-signifying text.

I could not understand it. It was almost like submerged aggression. Wandering through the empty halls – I seemed to be the only visitor – looking at my watch, putting one foot after another, feeling unbelievably depressed, suddenly I heard a sound – tinny – like the kind that comes from a computer, playing Que Sera Sera incessantly.

I turned the corner, and there I was, facing what appeared to be an installation which identified itself as The Museum of the Future. I went inside. Arranged like an abandoned circus, and apparently unsigned – the work comprised a sculptural maquette resembling a labyrinth, as well as more or less crude reproductions of some well-known modern paintings, and labels on the wall purporting to be extracts from a vanished manuscript.

The installation recounted an eccentric tale of anthropology, modernity, museums, birth and death. This story ran as follows. In 1502 Pope Julius II – the “Fearsome Pope” and legendary patron of the arts, painted by Raphael – but chiefly known for commissioning from Michelangelo the marvelous frescoes that now decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – installed his prized collection of late Hellenistic sculptures in a sheltered courtyard in his summer house: the Villa Belvedere.

Amongst them was the statue the Apollo Belvedere, a classical figure in marble showing Apollo slaying Python, the primordial serpent as well as Laocoon and his Sons, a later Baroque marble statue, depicting the death throes of the Trojan priest, strangled on a shoreline for attempting to expose the secrets of Trojan Horse. Half a century later, the unified design of the Cortile del Belvedere was completed with the addition of a giant alcove – the largest constructed since antiquity, under the Papacy of Paul IV – also the originator of Rome’s first Jewish ghetto.

This put the final touch on a design, first drawn-up by Bramante, which is today home to the Vatican Museum, but which had functioned in in the interim as the site of Leo X’s famous menagerie, and the parade ground of his majestic white elephant Hanno, whose bones are buried on the site.

In the creation of this installation – so the Museum of the Future claimed – the Pope materialized a vision which would sustain the Western cultural project for the next five hundred years. Art was created as a category of aesthetic contemplation, superseding theurgical devotion, in a space that could be recognized as a museum.

In short, this Papal exhibition of the glories of pagan antiquity, in the Roman heart of Christianity inaugurated a dynamic which came to supersede it. The installation in the Belvedere invented a new mode of spectatorship, characterized by an indifferent aesthetic gaze trained on the ruined past –on archaeological discoveries – placed in a juxtaposed historic context.

The world was no-longer a spiritual allegory, but a material landscape, rich with artifacts – a Museum of the West conceived as a facsimile of ancient Greece and Rome, re-imagined by a modern Europe originally transalpine and barbaro-Roman speeding towards the future on a wave of progress.

And so the story goes – almost four centuries later, Alfred Barr arrived in London in July 1927 with $400 from his mentor Paul Sachs of Goldman Sachs, a stack of introductions, and an unfinished dissertation on ”The Machine in Modern Art” – to scour a scarred continent for treasures, traveling from London through Holland to Paris, to Moscow. Europe, once a gaze, was now an object. And a few years later – again on the advice of Sachs – Barr became the first director of the MoMA, this American art museum dominated by non-American art, committed to organizing recent developments according to supranational movements, rather than national schools.

And the rest is history. A history defined by a transhistorical dynamic, by Apollo and Laocoon – or from another point of view – by the reproductions of Barr’s diagrams which were also on display: his 1936 synthesis of non-geometric art and abstract art, which inaugurated the discourse of international modernism, and the strange sketch of the MOMA as a hybrid of a whale or torpedo, swimming towards the future.

In both cases one sees the trappings of the same basic operation – a logic of dismemberment, and recollection. Julius II redefines his relics as examples of a new aesthetic category, called art –  inventing the Museum to midwife the appearance of an era based upon the new time of modernity, conceived in opposition to a cut-off and dead past. The MoMA invents international modernity as a simulation of a vanished European civilization which in fact never existed except in retroactive imagination. Barr, armed with a box full of Maleviches sent in desperation from Hanover, and two compositions exported hidden wrapped around his umbrella (and here one thinks again of Nietzsche…) introduces to America the notion of an international avant-garde, and sets the cultural agenda for the post-war world.

A collection policy reassembles – or assembles for the first time –  a pulverized body, whose material is scattered across diverse and sundry situations – and asserts that the results always belonged together, when in fact they held together solely by the story being told about them, and through them. At every point, the invention of a new era is accompanied by the elaboration of a new kind of museum; even the Hellenistic age is simultaneously both announced, and ended, by the foundation of the Great Library of Alexander which shepherds it into late antiquity – a collection point for reassembling the wreckage.

So what of the Museum of the Future? Certainly one may remark the concept is the subject of a paradox –  almost as if what is now being overcome is history itself – itself now, like Europe once before, no-longer a gaze, but now an object. And equally, the ending of the West, which transforms into the fantasy of the contemporary world, having reached its terminus in California – the manifested Western edge of destiny.

What will now follow? The Museum of the Future itself proposes that the museum should redouble its commitment to enlightenment’s unfinished project, and jettison ”art” as a rationally compromised category. This, in the cause of an anthropological redefinition of Museum space in which works of art will be exhibited not as sacred objects, but rather specimens of one of the inventions of chthonic western culture.

Let me say this seems to me this conclusion is no conclusion at all – but only another turn of the rationalist screw – another stage of disenchantment – which, like all those before it, directs itself towards the “demystification” of prevailing ones.

It is indeed, the expression of an attitude which is still spellbound by tradition that seeks always a purer form at the price of what exists today. I therefore propose another strategy. It is not the scientific specimen, but the impure that we must embrace – the hesitant, the unclear, the uncertain. The noise, for instance, of a train station at night, where someone is waiting for an early morning train – to take to her to a city where no-one knows her name, or only one person. A woman’s face as she opens her eyes.

We are oppressed, I believe, most of all by our ideas of who we are – by our false certainties, by what we think we know – when who can say what one is truly capable of doing? And in this way, even if the formulation of the problem appears new, in another respect it is always the same – this challenge of reiterating that we are not condemned by life, to live life in a certain way. That amongst us, here already, there is everything in this life. There is everything – and everything still lies before us.

That – when one asks oneself – what should I do – one is forced to recognize that no solutions to these questions are available except through action. That it is incumbent upon us, always and again, to step into the unknown, to first identify, and then take leave of the practices that one finds active in oneself.

One indeed moves forward in some sense despite oneself – against oneself – even while pursuing at the same time one’s own deepest nature. For myself, I could not anticipate in any way what I could expect on my return here, or imagine the friendships I would make. I knew only that I had to come, even without knowing why, by knowing that I could not know.

Therefore I can think of no more better way to end these talks then with the repetition of an interdiction that Caitlin Lunaire told me two weeks after the attacks in Paris at the Bataclan, as I confessed to her my hesitation. This line, which swept me off my feet – and I only say this is a simile, this statement of a dawn, which I do not think could be improved on as a summary of all I have been trying to make clear here.

We cannot live in fear.

Thank you very much.

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