André Breton and the Black Constellation of the Caribbean – The Anthropology of Magic

Wassily Kandinsky, Small Worlds VII, 1922.
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By MICHAEL LÖWY*

Chapter of the recently released book “The incandescent comet: Romanticism, Surrealism, Subversion”

It was on the initiative of his friend Pierre Mabille, author of a surprising work of surrealist inspiration – Le view of the merveilleux [The mirror of the wonderful] (1940) –, and that he would later be appointed cultural attaché of France in Haiti – he would found, in December 1945, the French Institute of Haiti – that André Breton was invited, in September 1945, to give a series of lectures in Port-au-Prince.

Elisa and André Breton, who were in New York at the time, arrived in Haiti by plane on December 4th. The testimonies of Paul Laraque and René Depestre demonstrate the atmosphere of expectation and enthusiasm that surrounded this visit. This attitude was shared by the young people who published the magazine The Hive. Organe de la Geune Generation, whose issue of December 7, 1945 announced, with a large title on the front page: “Welcome to the great surrealist André Breton”. This homage would fit both the poet and the freedom fighter:

André Breton is one of those intelligences whose anti-fascist convictions crossed the borders of France, finding the approval of thousands of non-conformists around the world. Surrealism is the absolute negation of the corrupted values ​​to which reactionary writers stubbornly cling. His attitude towards the French defeat was admirable.

If the author of Manifesto of Surrealism accepted the invitation, it was because the black culture of the Caribbean interested him deeply. This obviously concerns the Surrealist artists for whom he had the strongest admiration: the poets Magloire Saint-Aude, Aimé and Suzanne Césaire and the painter Wifredo Lam. Breton had met the Césaires during their stay in Martinique in 1941: this warm encounter is recounted in the book Martinique, charmeuse of serpents [Martinique, enchanting of serpents] (1948), in which he celebrates the Diary of a homecoming of the Martinican poet as being “the greatest lyrical monument of that time” and shortly afterwards, Saint-Aude would be the object of a beautiful homage: we find in his poems, writes Breton, “the philosopher’s stone or almost, the incredible note that tames the world, the single tooth whose wheel of anguish intertwines with ecstasy”.

Césaire – who would go on to be elected communist deputy and mayor of Fort-de-France – and Lam are described, at the Hotel Savoy conference, as being, quite simply, those who provided, over the last fifty years, “the greatest impulses for the new paths of Surrealism”. There was an exhibition of works by Wifredo Lam in Port-au-Prince at the end of January 1946, and Breton contributed to his catalog with the text “The night in Haiti”, in which he describes the art of the Cuban painter as “a unique and trembling testimony… of herons at the bottom of the lake where the current myth is elaborated”.

But there was still another broader motivation, at the same time political, cultural and poetic: not only the anti-colonialist militant's sympathy for the "colored peoples", but also, and above all, the conviction, deeply rooted in Surrealism, that the so-called cultures “primitives” – mainly that of the Hopi Indians, whom Breton had visited in Arizona in August 1945, and that of black Haitians – had a privileged relationship with the most intimate sources of the human spirit and that had not yet been contaminated by the predominant capitalist alienation in “advanced” Western countries…

In fact, for Breton and the Surrealists, these two aspects are directly linked: one of the reasons, and not the least important, for their anti-colonialism was precisely their admiration for the human and poetic quality of the cultures of colonized peoples, and their indignation at the attempt to of the western powers to impose – through the articulated action between their military force, their missionaries and merchants – the “modern” capitalist civilization, in addition to the erasure or destruction of these “indigenous people” by these same powers.

Here is his comment on the subject in an interview – which had great repercussion on the island – given to the Haitian poet René Bélance, published in Haiti − Gournal, on December 13, 1945: “Surrealism is related to peoples of color, on the one hand, because it has always positioned itself against all forms of imperialism and white plunder, as evidenced in the manifestos published in Paris against the war of the Morocco, against colonial exposure, etc.; on the other hand, due to the most intimate affinities existing between so-called 'primitive' thought and surrealist thought, in which both aim to suppress the hegemony of the conscious and the everyday, relying on the conquest of revealing emotion. These affinities are evidenced by a Martinican black writer, Jules Monnerot, in a recently published work: Modern poetry and the sacred.

Published in 1945, this book refuted the erroneous assessment of the “primitive mentality” by official anthropology (Lévy-Bruhl) and advances in the following hypothesis, which seems to have raised Breton's full approval: “The surreal or marvelous that the surrealists aim at they can evoke, without inadmissible abuses of language, the imaginary-real world of certain 'primitives' […]. a domain privileged of experience is opposed to the consciousness of life ordinary which, in our society, does not intend to tolerate anything that is circumscribed outside it”.

Na Ode to Charles Fourier, a passage from Monnerot’s book is quoted, which compares Breton’s approach to that of the Soulteaux indigenous people: “[Fourier] I salute you from the crossroads as a sign of proof and from the ever-potent trajectory of this preciously collected arrow at my feet : “there is no separation and heterogeneity between the supernatural and the natural (the real and the surreal). No hiatus. It is a 'continuum', we seem to be listening to André Breton: but he is an ethnographer who speaks to us on behalf of the Soulteaux Indians”.

Monnerot serves Breton to highlight the secret affinities between the Indians of North America, Charles Fourier (which will be discussed at length in the Haitian conferences), the black cultures of the Caribbean and Surrealism.

He would return to this theme, in different ways, in his lectures, starting with the first, when he met with Haitian poets at the Hotel Savoy (December 5, 1945): “I am not afraid to affirm that men called 'colored' have always enjoyed exceptional fervor and prestige within Surrealism. There is an excellent reason for this fact: […] we think, my friends and I, that they are the ones who remained closer to the sources and that, in this essential approach to Surrealism, which consists of listening to the inner voice of each man set apart, we seek to connect immediately with the so-called 'primitive' thought, which is less foreign to you than it is to us and which, in addition In addition, he is strangely fearless in Haitian Vodou”.

In fact, the so-called “primitive” thought – Breton uses the term with great reserve – is not exclusive to this or that ethnic group: for him, this thought designates a spiritual instance common to all humanity, but which is despised and devalued by the West.

What are these about fontes hidden in the most intimate depths of the human spirit? It seems to me to be about magic, that is, the enchantment of the world that manifests itself in rituals, words, gestures, dances, myths, images and objects, and that inspire both black culture and that of Oceania or, even, that of indigenous peoples of the Americas. There is in the works of Breton, Péret, Leiris and, later, in that of Vincent Bounoure, a kind of anthropology of magic which is also an anthropology of desire – which allows them to build communicating vessels between Hermeticism, Romanticism, Surrealism and the so-called “primitive” cultures.

What is magic and what is its relation to desire? According to Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, quoted by Jules Monnerot, "the essence of magic is solely the nocturnal belief in the effectiveness of desire and feeling". Is not modern poetry, and particularly that of the surrealists, after all a magical practice that seeks its purpose in itself, a “hopeless” magic (of killing the enemy or seducing the loved one)? This is Jules Monnerot's hypothesis. According to the Antillean thinker, Romanticism and Surrealism share a deep nostalgia for a “lost world” – I would add: an enchanted world –, for a “mythical period”, in which “poetry, science, divination, philosophy, religion and social organization were not irremediably distinct”.

Breton's speech in Haiti conforms to the surrealist spirit of sympathy – in the etymological sense of the word: a pathos shared – by the so-called “primitive” cultures, which preserved something of this original magical unity and managed to resist the corrosive capitalist exchange value.

The reference to Voodoo in Breton's speech is not accidental. It corresponds to the poet's deep interest in this popular magical cult, which he had undoubtedly learned about through Pierre Mabille. It was thanks to his friend that he was able to participate, during his short stay in Haiti, in eight sessions of this secret ritual, an unforgettable experience that he would recall a few years later in a preface to the reprint of Pierre Mabille's book, Le view of the merveilleux: “Pierre Mabille guided me towards one of these houmphors or Voodoo temples, where later, more or less clandestinely, a ceremony would take place. […] The pathos of Voodoo ceremonies assailed me for a long time so that, from the persistent vapors of blood and rum, I could try to extract the generative spirit and measure its true reach. It was only given to me to impregnate myself with their climate, to become permeable to the profusion of primitive forces which they put into action”.

From these visits, Breton brought back an iron fetish, to which Voodoo practitioners attributed malefic powers; according to the testimony of Roger Caillois, Breton was not far from sharing this same belief. Let us remember that President Lescot adopted, in collaboration with the Catholic Church, a virulent campaign against Voodoo, called “Anti-Superstitious Campaign” (1942), denounced by Jacques Roumain – hence the “more or less clandestine” nature of the rituals that Mabille and his friend could watch.

It is from Voodoo that Breton will try to understand Haitian art and, in particular, the work of the great popular Haitian painter Hector Hyppolite, which he had discovered during his visit to the Haitian Art Center, considering it “an invasive breath of spring”. . In a 1947 article, he notes: “Hector Hyppolite's painting exhibits, I think, the earliest representations of Voodoo deities and scenes. […] Hyppolite's vision manages to reconcile a high realism with an extremely exuberant supernaturalism. No one could better express the anguish of certain Haitian skies than him, or suggest, through the fusion of vegetation and rust, the so closed and dense aspect of these foliage. On the other hand, in his work, what is the result of visual perception is not distinguished from what is the result of mental representation: this is how, in […] one of his paintings, the serpent-god Damballah is neither more nor less real and concrete than the priest, the master of ceremonies and the two priestesses who carry the banners”.

Like the Surrealist poets of the Antilles and the painter Wifredo Lam, Hector Hyppolite – whose works were to be shown at the 1947 International Surrealism Exhibition – is another star of that dark Caribbean constellation with whom Breton feels in direct conjunction during these decisive weeks between December of 1945 and January of 1946.

In his speech at the Hotel Savoy, so radical in its break with white racism, Western Eurocentrism, colonial paternalism and missionary “compassion”, Breton expressed the profound meaning he attributed to this visit, which was for him, just like it occurred to him among the Hopis, a kind of initiatory journey. Thus, he perceived himself as someone who not only came to present his ideas and knowledge, but also to listen and learn: an attitude that significantly contributed to the creation, between him and his Haitian interlocutors – poets, artists, students or simply curious spirits – , of a relationship of trust and a bond of friendly complicity of which all were witnesses. We could also say that a process of elective affinity developed between them, in the alchemical sense of the term – later reformulated by Goethe in his famous novel The elective affinities –, that is, a reciprocal attraction based on intimate analogies of the spirit and feelings (the “chemical” affinity).

Surrealism as a spark: the speeches from the Hotel Savoy and the Teatro Rex

What makes this meeting unique, both in the history of Surrealism and that of Toussaint Louverture's country, is the “coincidence” between Breton's visit and the outbreak of the January 1946 Revolt, which overthrew the detestable regime of President Lescot. Of course, we could compare this convergence, or active conjugation between Surrealism and revolution, with the events of May 1968 in France, but the influence of Surrealism was, at this moment, much more diffuse and crowded than that of a more visible branch. : Situationism. If the revolutionary vocation of Surrealism left no doubt, the constellation that took place in Haiti at this moment, between the surrealist word and the subversive action, is a singular event, without precedent or equivalence.

We know that André Breton's speech at the Hotel Savoy was published on the front page of the magazine of young poets and revolutionaries, The Hive, whose confiscation by the authorities, as it were, was the spark that lit the gunpowder. On the other hand, we can ask ourselves the question of the reasons for this liberticidal measure: was it Breton's speech, some other article, or the publication as a whole that raised the fears of power and its brutal reaction? It is true that the publication of the speech accompanied a commentary on the glories of Surrealism, not hiding its subversive intentions. In any case, banning the magazine was, like the Press Laws of Charles X in 1830, the immediate reason for the mobilization of young people against the regime and which ultimately led to its defeat.

Remember that three of the young “bees” from The Hive were among the main actors of the January days: Gérald Bloncourt, René Depestre and Jacques-Stéphen Alexis. The fact that they were artists – painter, poet and writer, respectively – undoubtedly favored the reception of Breton's word. All of them also promised a bright future: the first, a young painter, exiled in France, would become the most important photographer of the French labor movement; the second, a famous communist poet, exiled in Cuba during Duvalier's dictatorship (he would later abandon communism and poetry for a diplomatic career, as Haiti's representative at Unesco); and the third, a communist writer with a tragic destiny, author of one of the most important novels in Haitian literature, Compère General Soleil [Comrade General SOL] (1955), would die by the bullets of the Duvalierist police in 1961.

What, then, were Breton's assertions in that speech of December 5th and in the speeches of the following weeks that could contribute, directly or indirectly - in any case involuntarily, since the author of L'Amour Jou [crazy love] had no intention of causing turmoil – with the events of early January 1946? Without wanting to exaggerate its importance, and knowing properly that young Haitian Marxists already had insurrectionary projects well before Breton's arrival, there is no doubt that the interventions of the surrealist poet gave some support to the gestation – among students, youth and a layer more cultured popular culture – of a certain state of mind, a climate, an agitated atmosphere favorable to a great emancipatory impulse.

A climate also favored by the hope, throughout Latin America in 1945, that the defeat of fascism would lead to the fall of the continent's dictators and authoritarian regimes. In short, André Breton was, not only him, but certainly, together with the young revolutionary poets of Port-au-Prince, one of the messengers of the storm of January 1946. Or rather, one of the sources that, as the hougans of Voodoo, has the sacred gift of pronouncing the enchanted words that unleash lightning...

According to press clippings and testimonies, the conference at the Hotel Savoy was a kind of magical meeting between Breton, on the one hand, and Haitian poets and youth, on the other. The guest intervention elicited enthusiastic and fervent reactions that, even half a century later, participants would still mention. Here is the testimony of the poet Paul Laraque: “In the first words of the Mago, the atmosphere was electrified and soon the mines launched by the young revolutionaries of The Hive, whose meeting with Breton at Savoy, in early December 1945, made our banquet a cross between poetry and a kind of trial by fire”.

Three themes from this intervention likely resonated particularly powerfully with the audience:

(1) The assertion, on the part of Surrealism, of a "boundless faith in the genius of youth". After recalling the example of teenagers or younger individuals that Surrealism claimed for itself – Saint-Just, Novalis, Rimbaud, Lautréamont –, the speaker did not hesitate to proclaim: “when Surrealism turns one hundred years old, the idea of that it is in youth that lucidity resides, as well as true potency”. But, beyond this homage, there was an appeal in the Savoy speech, an imperative: “it is absolutely necessary that the youth free themselves from the inferiority complex, in the highest degree of paradox, in which for centuries we did the impossible to remain”. Only by getting rid of this burden will youth “be able to obtain the right to a preponderant active voice and make the audacious solutions that belong to them prevail over routine”.

It is evident that such an appeal could only encourage young people – notably the authors of The Hive, but also others beyond them – who dreamed, precisely, of making their audacious solutions prevail in Haiti: the Social Revolution.

(2) The homage paid to Haiti's revolutionary past, this "good word [...] that immediately evokes, if not all the very precise episodes of your history, at least a desire for emancipation that will never be denied", this "dynamic little word , of the small number of those who followed forward".

There too, for those who considered it necessary to carry forward the desire for the emancipation of the Haitian people, the message was clear.

(3) To conclude his speech, the speaker chose to quote a passage from the poetic novel dew lords, by the communist writer Jacques Roumain (died August 1944): “We are poor and unhappy, it is true, we are miserable; and truth. But do you know why, sister? Because of our ignorance: we do not yet know that we are one force, one force; all the villagers, all the blacks of the plains and hills together. One day, when we have understood this truth, we will go from one end of the country to the other and hold general assemblies of the lords of the dew, the great coumbite of land workers to dismantle poverty and plant new life”.

How could young people, at the same time followers of Surrealism and disciples of Jacques Roumain, be insensitive to the passage quoted by Breton, a true call to general upheaval, “from one end of the country to the other”, of the poor, miserable and condemned of the earth? It is interesting to note that the sympathy, or even adherence, of young people from The Hive to the communist movement did not prevent the agreement, the affinity that Breton speaks of in his speech, “which completely overcomes the age difference between me and you”, with Leon Trotsky’s friend and also founder of FIARI (International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art ), whose criticisms of Stalinism are well known. This would have been impossible in France in 1945… It is true that by paying homage to Jacques Roumain, Breton had demonstrated his open-mindedness and his rejection of any idea of ​​political faction.

We can then raise the hypothesis that the Savoy discourse created between the French poet and the vanguard of Haitian youth a kind of magnetic field, magnetized by poetry. His words, and in particular his conclusion, could easily be interpreted as a call to young people and the poor to revolt, to rediscover the path of emancipation, to plant the seeds of a new future. By publishing the speech in their magazine, the young people gave legitimacy to their contestatory approach and prepared the ground for their subversive actions. The regime’s repression accelerated things…

The first of the planned series of lectures on “Surrealism”, which took place at the Rex Theater on December 20, 1945, may have contributed to and also prepared the tropical hurricane that, a few weeks later, swept Lescot and his pallets e bougrelas. This is what René Depestre, who was present and has an ardent memory of the event, reports: André Breton's message “provided a feast in the imagination of the young people who filled the theater. We applauded with great enthusiasm… We climbed into Breton's contagious lyricism like birds discovering that the tree where they landed was a prodigy of music and freedom. […] In the very first word of André Breton, we knew that we were ready to unleash in Haiti, in a pioneering way, mutatis mutandis, a 'May 68' in the tropics”.

In front of an audience much larger than that of the Hotel Savoy, Breton evoked a theme dear to young Marxists, which he had only outlined in his previous speech: the misery of the Haitian people, the “not only precarious, but pathetic” condition of man Haitian. He also returned, more explicitly than on December 5, to the revolutionary tradition of the island: “what initially gave him the strength to endure and then regain his freedom, what was the soul of his resistance, was the African heritage that he managed to transplant here, making it bear fruit despite the chains that bound it”. It was not just a historic call, but a permanent fact, thanks to the “indescribable impulse of freedom and the solid affirmation of your country's dignity”. Regardless of the speaker's intentions, these words could also be received as an injunction to no longer submit to the yoke of an authoritarian and oppressive power.

The conference outlined, in a few dense paragraphs, the history of the origins and evolution of Surrealism, starting from a “little sentence” from 1919, which revealed to Breton a completely unknown universe, serving him as a “deaf flashlight” to explore the depths of the human spirit: "there is a man cut in two by a window". An important turning point for the movement born in 1924 will be, a little later, the colonialist war against Morocco, which will raise the need for a public demonstration, but will be above all the occasion to discover “dialectical materialism as the only force of strongly organized opposition, the only dam against national selfishness and the only promise of universal conciliation and harmony”. This materialism, reinterpreted by the surrealists, refuses reductionist approaches: alongside the economy, “which we are very careful not to reduce its importance”, there is another element that also conditions the psychic and moral life of human societies, which the speaker designates as lyrical: “One only has to touch Haiti to be convinced that this lyrical element, far from being, as in other places, a subject only for specialists, manifests itself in the aspirations of the entire population”.

It is from these premises that, for Surrealism, the question of “social action is posed, an action that, in our view, has its own method in dialectical materialism and that we can even less fail to see interest since we consider the liberation of man as a condition sine gua non for the deliverance of the spirit.” Breton mentions, in this context, the various political positions taken by Surrealism, mainly against fascism, as early as February 10, 1934, in France – Call for a general strike – and then during the war in Spain – positions based “on fidelity to principles, in rigor and in the obstinate refusal of any compromise” – and as a conclusion he quotes Maurice Blanchot, who would write, regarding Surrealism: “How could poetry be disinterested in the social revolution?”.

Due to this explicit adherence to Marxism – which was not yet evident at the December 5th conference – and the imperative of the emancipatory social revolution, Breton was placed directly on the same ground as the most radical groups of Haitian youth. On the other hand, it is difficult to know how many of the young could share the idea, dear to Surrealism, that social revolution is not an end in itself, but a means to the liberation of the human spirit...

It is interesting to note that this lecture was also published, on January 1, 1946, in the journal Conjunction – without, for that reason, being apprehended by the authorities –, then being read by a wider audience than the one present at Teatro Rex. Thus, as at Savoy, it sowed the seeds – or rather, sparks: seeds take longer to germinate – of social revolution over eminently explosive terrain.

After the fall of Lescot, Breton would evoke the “Glorious Five” – on the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th of January 1946 in his second conference, which was read on the 11th of January, exactly at the end of the revolt. He begins by explaining why he maintains a certain reserve duty: “Despite any temptation I may have, you will certainly understand that the conditions of my stay in Haiti prevent me from formulating an assessment of the events that have unfolded in the last week. in this country". This caution was probably imposed by the desire to avoid trouble for his host, Pierre Mabille.

However, he feels quite free to make some comments “of a general scope”, but which are very clear and specific: “It has been demonstrated right here, with a sobriety of means, an economy of human lives, with a speed, an unprecedented rigor and evidence, that young people can do anything, or at least can conquer everything”. Youth, he adds, “must not only be impetuous, it must be direct and committed to life in the sense of that right. The young people of Haiti have just stood out in this way as brave warriors”.

Breton seems to perceive in these “events” the confirmation of his commitment to the capacity of youth to “make the bold solutions that belong to them prevail”. However, wouldn't these young people, who had just overthrow the regime, run the risk of seeing their victory confiscated, especially by the military who would rush to occupy the power vacuum? With lucidity, the lecturer adds: “It is enough, but that is not all: besides, it is still necessary for young people to know how to protect themselves and, for that, only the most aware and inspired among all can do it, taking care of not being deposed or betrayed”. It is evident that Breton thus expresses his confidence in the “most aware” among young people, as well as his support – a formula that undoubtedly includes the animators of The Hive –, fearing that they would be “overthrown” – which indeed happened very quickly. His call to care is also a call to refuse opportunistic compromises and selfishness: “Youth will only taste the inestimable fruit of its conquests if it is only on condition that it demonstrates an unshakable fidelity to the ideals and principles that allowed it to win and which, in the first place, , command the subordination of the interest of one to the interest of all. It is necessary, first of all, that it be impregnated with the conviction that existentialist philosophy tends to take up again today, that renunciation is equivalent to a true spiritual suicide”.

Apart from a few exceptions, most of the young actors of January 1946 lived up to this demand, among them Jacques-Stéphen Alexis, paying the price of their lives...

In the face of those who rose up against the intransigent radicalism of young people, Breton mentions with satisfaction the one whom he designates as “one of the rare men of action whom I honor without any reservations”, “The friend of the people” Marat, who, first, had denounced the prostitution of political vocabulary by the powerful: “The princes, their ministers, agents, flatterers and servants call […] politics the art of deceiving men; of government, cowardly and tyrannical domination... of submission, servitude... of rebellion, fidelity to the laws; of revolt, resistance to oppression; of insubordinate speech, the vindication of the rights of man”.

The content of this second conference and those that followed are essentially outside the subject of this note, which concerns Breton's role in creating the atmospheric conditions for the January 1946 revolt. part. In a few words: it is a genealogy of Surrealism, affirming its status as heir to the revolutionary Romanticism of the XNUMXth century. For Breton, Romanticism is not, as the manuals mistakenly claim, a strictly artistic movement, but also and inseparably “a philosophical and social movement”. And its essential moments do not consist, contrary to school teaching, in the poems of Lamartine, Musset or Vigny, but rather in the English Gothic novels – Walpole, Lewis, Maturin – in the works of Novalis and Achim von Arnim, in the poetry of Hugo, etc. Romanticism is a kind of common thread throughout Breton's passage through Haiti, including his homage to Haitian “primitivism”, his reference to the work of Jacques Roumain and, finally, his lectures on the sources of Surrealism.

A final, vibrant homage to the events of January 1946 is found in the eighth and final Breton conference in Haiti (probably the one on February 12): “Ladies and gentlemen, in one of the last darkest periods of history, I will never forget that it fell to the Haitians to concretely prefer, in my view, what we could consider to be the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedomdade. For this to happen, nothing less was needed than the help of the powers that remain lit in your past, among all, dramatic and glorious. Furthermore, regardless of what I owe you, it would be enough for me to passionately link myself to your destinies”.

The formula “powers still burning in your past” is undoubtedly a reference to the Revolution of the “Black Jacobins”, led by Toussaint Louverture; Breton presents himself as a witness (“in my view”) rather than a social actor, but he clearly attributes enormous human and historical significance to this surprising Haitian revolt.

So let's return to the question that is the subject of some of these lines: Breton's possible influence on the January 1946 uprising. What is the power of a man's word? To what extent can it effectively inspire social action? Legend has it that, in the course of the 1848 revolution, Bakunin traveled across northern Germany in a carriage; Intrigued by a crowd of peasants who surrounded a stately castle without knowing what to do, he got out of the coach and addressed them; Leaving a few minutes later, he had the pleasure of seeing, around the bend in the path, the castle in flames...

Several historians of the Russian Revolution are in agreement in recognizing in the speeches of Leon Trotsky, a charismatic orator, mainly at the time of the meetings of the Petrograd Modern Circus, an important factor in the preparation of the revolutionary climate of October 1917. But these examples, related to revolutionary leaders animated by the objective of arousing social revolt and the subversion of order, are hardly comparable to our case, in which we observe a poet addressing a group of young people, explaining to them the emancipatory aspirations of Surrealism.

Breton himself had an extremely modest view of his role in 1946; a few months later, during an interview, he was asked the following question: “I believe that you had some influence on the Haitian Revolution. Could you give us details of what happened?” Here is his response, in which he stresses the seriousness of the social situation, the revolutionary traditions of the Haitian people and the role of rebellious youth: “Let's not exaggerate. At the end of 1945, the misery and, consequently, the patience of the Haitian people reached their limit. […] This situation is even more heartbreaking if we think that the Haitian spirit, like no other, continues to miraculously extract its sap from the French Revolution and that Haitian history is the one that, in a surprising shortcut, presents us with the most pathetic effort to advance of man, from slavery to freedom. […] In a first conference on “Surrealism and Haiti”, I tried […] to adjust the path undertaken by Surrealism with the secular pace of Haitian peasants. […] The magazine The Hive, organ of the younger generation, whose next day's issue was dedicated to me, declared my words electrifying and decided to take on an insurrectionary tone. Its seizure and immediate suspension soon triggered the students' strike followed, within 48 hours, by the general strike. A few days later, the governor was arrested.”

In another interview, published in June 1946, he maintains his opinion, fully acknowledging the unique and fascinating character of the experience he had lived: “It would be absurd to say, even to myself, that I brought about the fall of the government […]. Being put in a set of circumstances like that only happens once in a lifetime.”

Even accepting this minimal assessment, the question remains: what influence could Breton have on the actors of January 1946? Perhaps it is necessary to put the question another way: Lucien Goldman explained, in his works on the (Marxist) sociology of culture, that “influences” explain nothing. On the contrary, what must be explained is why a given author or thinker chose, at a given historical moment, to be “influenced” by such an author. In other words: what we call influence is an active choice, a selection, interpretation or, rather, a use rather than a passive “reception”. If we apply this methodological reasoning to our case, we can formulate the following hypothesis: the young “bees” of The Hive and the more active movement of young students needed a more radical word and they found it in Breton's interventions. They recognized it as the expression of their deepest feelings of revolt and hope. They made her the flagship of their magazine. They wielded it like a weapon.

Weeks later, in February 1946, Breton had to leave Haiti: according to several testimonies, it was the military junta that overthrew Lescot – and which would soon be forced to call new elections – that asked him to leave, uncomfortable with his dangerous influence over the young people... (Also Pierre Mabille, a few months later, would be forced to leave his post). After a brief stay in Martinique and Santo Domingo, Breton returned to France. It was on the ship he boarded in Puerto Plata (Dominican Republic) making the return trip to São Tomás (in the Antilles) – from where he would depart by plane for the United States, then on to Europe – that he would meet, for the last time, one of the young people from The Hive who was at the head of the “Glorious Five”: Gérald Bloncourt.

* Michael Lowy he is director of research at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (France). Author, among other books, of The Morning Star: Surrealism and Marxism (Boitempo).

Reference


Michael Lowy. The Glowing Comet: Romanticism, Surrealism, Subversion. Translation: Elvio Fernandes and Diogo Cardoso, Editions 100/heads, 2021, 312 pages.

 

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