Breton and Haiti, Once Again

I just had the opportunity to read André Breton: Magus of Surrealism by Anna Balakian, the first American scholar to seriously investigate Surrealism. Balakian, who passed away in 1997 (see obituary in The New York Times, August 15, 1997), published Literary Origins of Surrealism in 1947, after having interviewed Breton when he lived in New York. André Breton: Magus of Surrealism, published in 1971, can be described as an expansive literary biography which takes up each period of the poet’s long career.

Among the many things that impressed me about the book was her serious attempt to understand Breton as a philosopher (see Chapter XVI, “Toward a New Humanism,” as well as the introduction to the third edition of her Surrealism: the Road to the Absolute), although she sees in his thought affinities with Structuralism that I believe are completely at odds with the main current of his thinking. One must also at least mention her discussion of what can be called Breton’s (and possibly Balakian’s) heterosexism.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter XII, “The Political Adventure on Two Continents,” which describes Breton’s visit to Haiti in 1946, discussed earlier on this blog. I particularly like her description of the changing racial composition of Breton’s audience on the three evenings of his lectures.

•••

On their way back to France, Breton and his new wife, Elisa, were invited by Dr. Pierre Mabille, his old friend, to give a number of lectures in Haiti, where Mabille had become a cultural attache in Port-au-Prince. No one was in a more sympathetic frame of mind than Mabille to herald all the attractive qualities of Breton as poet, as intellectual leader, and even as social prophet. He had all the luminaries lined up for what was perhaps the most magnificent and official reception given to Breton anywhere in all his life. Before a resplendent and educated, mostly white audience he gave the first of three scheduled addresses At the second session half the audience was black; by the third session the blacks largely outnumbered the whites. Soon thereafter occurred the Haitian revolution which overthrew the demagogical regime. It has been said, half in jest, that the only political action Breton’s revolutionary pronouncements ever produced was the Haitian revolution. Of course, it was rather one of those miraculous coincidences of chance in which Breton believed so profoundly. The overthrow of the government had been long in the planning. Perhaps Breton’s fervent tones of sympathy for the Haitian people and his expressed confidence in their autochthonous genius, catalyzed the impending storm, triggered the brewing rebellion, proved to be the Marseillaise of the Revolution,—and certainly caused much embarrassment to Breton’s host and “deplorable repercussions on his activities as a cultural attache.” [1]

Breton’s message to his Creole audience was a continuation of the monologue begun in Mexico and carried on in the United States; it was perhaps most dramatically relevant to the immediate needs of Haiti: that the natural forces of nature, that man’s intrinsic manifestations of cult, have as their centrifugal force a high sense of human dignity and liberty, and that the so-called forces of “civilization” intervene not to enhance these innate realities but to obstruct them, and are therefore doomed to self-destruction. Haiti for him was still bearing the marks of French imperialism, and his own visit there, a significant evidence of the unity of intent in surrealism, whose first political protest had been against the war in Morocco in 1925. As Breton remembered the events in Haiti in Entrentiens: “The newspaper Ruche, organ of the young generation…declared my words electrifying, and decided to take an insurrectional tone.” [2]

In weighing the differences between the ethnic heritage of the Haitians and Western civilization, Breton tips the balance in favor of the former, with his particular flare for finding success where misery exists and misery where success and progress are overtly proclaimed. He contrasts the divisions that exist in European civilization with the monolithic nature of the Haitian. He extols the Haitian’s power to amalgamate his African animism with the aboriginal voodoo cult and the best in Christian mysticism, capturing the essential forces of the three in a single potent vision of the unity of the material and the spiritual, of the affective and the rational, and producing a deepening sense of reality. Breton finds the innocent man, as symbolized by the Haitian, closer to the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone, which leads to self-discovery and wisdom, than the civilized man who is bent on discovering only the contradictions and conflicts in himself and in his society. Again, situating surrealism as an extension of eighteenth-century illuminism and the French Revolution, Breton sees it as a tool for the search of knowledge; it is to be an antidote to mere mechanical progress which, “whether man contributes to it by his work or simply enjoys it, tend to isolate him in an abstract world where the meaning of his effort or his pleasure is depreciated, when it does not in addition hurl him into the most cruel disillusionment.” [3]  Man’s effort is ever annihilated by its unnatural direction, his pleasure is obliterated by artificially imposed duties.

[1] Preface to Pierre Mabille, Le Miroir du merveilleux, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1962, p. 11.

[2] Entretiens, p. 244. (In English as Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism, 1993)

[2] “Le Surrealisme,” Conjonction, Jan. 1946, p. 13.

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