Breton and Haiti, again

What follows is André Breton’s account of his visit to Haiti and the impact his activity had there (described by Franklin Rosemont in an earlier post). This exchange is taken from an interview conducted in 1946 with Jean Duché. The full interview appears in the fascinating book Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism. As with all the interviews that make up the book, the translation is by Mark Polizzotti. “Dr. Price-Mars” is Jean Price-Mars (1876-1969), author of So Spoke the Uncle.

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Jean Duché: It seems you had a hand in the Haitian revolution. Could you comment on exactly what happened?

André Breton: Let’s not exaggerate. At the end of 1945, the poverty, and consequently the patience, of the Haitian people had reached a breaking point. You have to realize that, on the huge Ile de la Gonave off the Haitian coast, men earned less than one American cent for an entire day’s labor, and that, according to the most conservative newspapers, children in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince live on tadpoles fished out of the sewers. This situation was made all the more poignant by the fact that the Haitian spirit, more than any other, miraculously continues to draw its vigor from the French Revolution; that the striking outline of Haitian history shows us man’s most moving efforts to break away from slavery and into freedom.

In a first lecture on “Surrealism and Haiti,” I tried, both for the sake of clarity and out of deference to the underlying spirit of this history, to align Surrealism’s aims with the age-old goals of the Haitian peasantry. In conclusion, I felt driven to condemn “the imperialisms that the war’s end has in no way averted and the cruelly maintained game of cat and mouse between stated ideals and eternal selfishness,” as well as to reaffirm my allegiance to the motto on the Haitian flag: “Union makes strength.” The newspaper La Ruche, the voice of the younger generation, which devoted the next day’s issue to me, said that my words were electrifying and decided to take an insurrectional tone. Its confiscations and suspension immediately led to a student strike, followed within forty-eight hours by a general strike. Several days, later, the government was held hostage. Unions were being started everywhere and free elections were promised. Even without yet knowing the final results—since the nature of the Haitian revolution has been hotly debated—I’d predict that it should be truly beneficial, especially since one of the most intellectually and morally respected men, the learned ethnologist Dr. Prince-Mars, has been elected to a key government post.

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