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Andr Breton and the Emancipation of Poetry*

By Ren Depestre (translated by Andrew Kingston)


If one opens the Dictionnaire abrg du surralisme, to the letter B, one finds,
after bont, bougie, bouton: BRETON (Andr), born in 1896. The teacup in the storm.
Poet, founder of the surrealist movement. Manifeste surraliste (1924-1930), Les champs
magntiques (1919), Le surrealism et la peinture, Nadja, lImmacule Conception, Le
revolver aux cheveux blancs, Les vases communicants, Lamour fou, etc.
Now if one consults the phmrides surrealistes, from 1919 to 1955, one finds,
at the close of the year 1945, a note touching on the surrealist activities of Andr Breton:
Port-au-Prince: in Haiti where he rejoins Mabille and Lam, Breton gives a series of
lectures. At the end of the first of them, the journal La Ruche called for an insurrection
that had for a result a student strike, which not long after took on the characteristics of a
general strike. The national assembly of Haiti was stormed and the members of the
government were taken prisoner.
The death of Andr Breton, in Paris, recalls to my mind these facts from twenty or
so years ago. In 1945, at age 19, I founded, with other comrades, the journal La Ruche,
to give to Haitian youth a literary and political organ for resistance. Haiti, then as now,
had all its horizons closed. La Ruche invited the young to unite, to take to the streets, and
on the side of the people to change the suffocating climate into which the life of the
country was descending.
At the end of 1945, the news of the arrival of Andr Breton in Haiti set our
imaginations ablaze. Our enthusiasm grew more still when we found out that his stay
coincided with an exhibition of the great Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam, and with a series
of lectures given by the celebrated Martinican poet Aim Csaire. This offered to our
journal an unimagined opportunity to call for a rebellion against the grotesque
dictatorship of lie Lescot.
We were very young then, without any organization in our vanguard, nor anyone
to orient us after the irreparable loss of Jacques Romain, the night of the 18th of August,
1944. We enlightened our revolt with ideas borrowed from poetry, the novel, and rare
essays on democracy and Marxism that we had hardly begun to learn, from theoretical
texts that had accidentally fallen into our hands.
Surrealism was welcome, given that we knew that at its height it did not let itself
be intimidated by any bourgeois taboo, and had taken over the old struggle of human
reason against the sacred and against the ferociously reactionary usage that all the
privileged of the world made of the sacred. We wanted to demystify the Haitian society
still dependent on its colonial heritage, but we did not know that for the demystification
of a societyin our case more precisely its decolonializationto be effective, it must
inevitably insert itself into a truly revolutionary praxis. In the precarious situation where
the Haitian people found themselves after the Second World War, we had tried to recover
from the hands of Breton the Promethean dream that surrealism, at the end of the first

* From: Depestre, Ren. (1974). Pour la rvolution pour la posie (pp. 204-213).
Quebec, QC: Editions Lemac, Inc.


war, had thrown in the face of its time. We were not well informed of the adventures in
the history of surrealism: we were even unfamiliar with the proper role of Andr Breton
within it. We equally ignored the precise circumstances over the course of which certain
surrealists as important as Aragon, Tristan Tzara, luard, Pablo Picasso, etc., had
abandoned the movement to adhere to the Parti Communiste Franais. We gleaned from
Andr Bretons visit to Haiti the fact that he was the principle leader of a movement of
thought, of poetry and modern art, that gave itself to denounce, as no artistic movement
had before, the mystifications, the ruses, hypocrisies, false values, taboos and insane
violences of capitalist society.
I must confess that, over the course of his visit, Andr Breton did not disappoint
our expectation. We were fascinated by the magnetism of his presence. His massive
head, his lionine face and his look like a prophet of the old Testament, his noble and
majestic air, his magnificently serious voice, the sobriety of his gestures and the
sumptuousness of his speech, significantly impressed all those who approached him, as
well as the young of La Ruche, those intellectuals like Magloire Saint-Aude, Ren
Blance, Paul Laraque, Jean F. Brierre, tienne Charlier, Anthony Lesps, dris SaintAmand, and others.
Breton was simple, open and warm with us. He seemed to possess the highest
sense possible of poetry and human solidarity. Breton spoke passionately of Nerval,
Jarry, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire and the origins of the surrealist adventure; but
what at the time had the most importance in our eyes was the fact that Breton espoused
with an exceptional vigor the spirit of rebellion proper to the surrealist experiment.
The first lecture by the author of Nadja took place in a Port-au-Prince cinema, in
the presence of the principle authorities of Haiti. The Ubu president of the Republic, the
ministers and chief military personnel of the regime, specialists of the degradation of
ideas, absolutely ignored all of Breton and surrealism. They doubtlessly thought that this
lecturer was one of those brave academicians who in order to maintain his audience
entertains the perspectives that the end of the war opened to Latin America, or other
questions without importance to their minds. Neither did our detestable politicians
believe with their eyes or ears when Breton opened his mouth to unfold upon their
sinister brutish faces an immense Oriental tapestry, gleaming with fire, of gemstones and
marvelous surrealist fruits. The man of rvolver aux cheveux blancs exploded his
speech over the heads of the stupid officials. President, senators, ministers, colonels, big
import-export executives, all the swollen messieurs of bad taste and their petite women
entangled themselves in the speech of the poet, while the flowering of youth, present in
the same room, applauded, freely expressing their joy, stomping their feet, climbing in
the lyricism of Breton as on a magical tree, thus creating in the cinema the same
subversive and scandalous climate that marked the heroic age of surrealism. This was,
without a doubt, one of the most salutary explosions in the history of surrealism.
At the end of the lecture, we were all electrified. Andr Breton did not expect a
communication so contagious between surrealism and the young Haitians in rebellion: he
was enchanted.
Some days after this unforgettable evening of poetry and dignity, La Ruche
published a thick special edition in homage to Breton and surrealism. Our homage was
equally intended toward the anti-fascists worldwide who wanted to win the war against
the Nazi monstrosity. We praised the Red Army of the Soviet Uninion and the military


exploits that had brought them from the banks of the Volga to the ruins of Berlin. Our
texts condemned colonialism and celebrated insurrection as the patience that all people
must manifest when we are erased by the violence of others patiences.
This special edition of La Ruche had unprecedented success in Haiti. The day
after publication, a presidential decree ordered its confiscation and forbade further
publication of the journal. We were thrown in prison. These arbitrary measures
immediately provoked a reaction from the countrys youth, with the students at their
head.
From the 7th to the 11th of January, 1946, there reigned in the capital of Haiti and
the principle cities of the province a veritable revolutionary situation. The general strike,
beginning at university, rapidly won over the rest of the country, with the active support
of all patriotic social strata. There were grand protests in the street, fights with the police
and the army, a climate of resistance and agitation that could, at whatever moment, turn
into revolution. But our call to insurrection remained an abstract word. There was not a
vanguard on the scene sufficiently organized to correctly steer the Haitian people onto the
road to revolution. The dictatorship of Lescot collapsed, but the State apparatus of the
neocolonial regime stayed intact. This was a painful experience for the masses and the
mortal sin of our generation.
This is neither the place to analyze the history of this failure, nor to draw lessons
from it. Nevertheless, this Haitian failure equally indicated the limits of surrealism and
of its major ambition to change life. From this moment on, it was extremely important
for us to understand that it is impossible to change life without a preliminary revolution
that transforms society and effects a mutation in the conditions of social existence.

Limits and Discoveries of Surrealism


Transform the world, said Marx; change life, said Rimbaud; these two
watchwords are for us the same, declared Andr Breton one day. Nevertheless, this
affirmation contains the contradiction that dominated the life of the poet, and his work.
We had known, says Aragon, the contradiction at the heart of the surrealist experiment,
the contradiction against which surrealism broke its poetic form, as a shoddy boat against
the inevitable reefs of history. Indeed, if Aragon and, later, luard, Tzara, Picasso, etc.,
realized that to change life implied forcefully a radical change of the social structure,
Breton, for his part, supported that the veritable object of his [humanitys] torment is the
human condition before the social condition of individuals. Breton accepted Marxism in
principle, as the grand occasion of class liberation and that of oppressed peoples, but he
continued to make the liberation of man [sic] depend singularly on the emancipation of
the (poetic) faculties of his spirit. Breton often strongly denounced the alienations of
man in capitalist society, but he never reached the point of seeing in the alienation of
labor (that transforms man into an object) the painful mother of all other forms of
individual alienation. Breton stayed on the ethical plane of revolt, while for example
someone like an Aragon actually accounted for revolts; the mad negotiations of his
little group were often storms in teacups, far from the real world and the social forces of
the revolution. Aragon paid attention to the limits of his revolt and searched out in the
revolution the spirit of rebellion and the supersession of individual alienations. Breton,


for his part, stayed confined to the individualist universe of his imagination, using all the
power of his genius to reach the highest mythic ambition of surrealism: the determination
of a certain point of the spirit where life and death, the past and the future, the
communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low, cease to be perceived as
contradictory. Breton situated this ultimate point outside of the social paths of
revolution, even when his aspiration appeared inseparable from the political struggle that
sought the unity of society and individuals. Breton never saw that it is through revolution
that poetry and the marvelous have the biggest chance of finding a satisfying escape route
from the ethical and aesthetic problems of the human condition. For not having seized
upon this major fact, the surrealism of Breton fell prey to multiple internal conflicts that
inevitably opened up scissions in the movement.
For many years, surrealism had nonetheless been at the heart of the passions and
the aesthetic (and often political) debates of our time. Those who, like Breton, would
remain loyal to the fundamental principles of the movement habitually refused to give
credit to all art that developed outside the attraction of the surrealist sphere. And those
who saw in surrealism a derisory attempt at a revaluation of the sacred, a cosmological
romanticism, arbitrarily closed their eyes on the invaluable contributions of surrealism to
poetry and modern art.
It is possible, now that surrealism has been in part recuperated by tradition, to
cool down [dpassioner] the debate and to bring to it a healthy and objective judgment,
to consider the exceptional merits of Andr Breton in facilitating the role of surrealism
worldwide.
Surrealism profoundly marked the modern sensibility; we find its indisputable
influence even in advertisements, in fashion catalogs, decorating magazines, and in a
thousand other domains of everyday life. No one can today deny the value of the
nocturnal dream as an important part of the thought and drive of man, and as a sign of the
existence of a more complex ego than that with which we are familiar in conscious life.
No poet, no artist can deny the participation of a certain automatism in the process of
creation. Of the role of black humor in our activities, Roger Vailland is correct when he
writes that black humor is not necessarily a synonym of hopelessness and of a taste for
the absurd. Its necessary reference to death is not necessarily paralyzing, given that it
tells us our limits and obliges us to take account of the place we occupy in nature and
history. The references to death fill us with the necessary courage to live a more
productive life.
We can consider as another important contribution of surrealism the fact that it
helped us to unmask and consider our superstitious fears, diverse aspects of the human
condition (on the terrain of love or eroticism, for example). We can say that the history
of surrealism is a history of a very praiseworthy attempt at secularizing the everyday
comportment of man.
But the surrealism that was a force of demystification of the human condition was
often presented along the idealist lines of a restoration of the sacred. The sacred that
Breton and his companions had thrown from the door entered by the window, and under
the form of the ultimate point, dear to the author of Arcane 17, degenerated, among
certain tired followers, in an enchanted and mystical circle, when it was not made into a
new theosophy. The surrealist experiment failed when Breton wanted to create a


collective myth or a new cosmology, heir of certain mystical aspects of German
romanticism, such as those one finds in Novalis or Arnim.
That said, numerous values of surrealism, present in Andr Bretons oeuvre,
assure him more than ever a decisive role in the effort for the elaboration an aesthetic
opening onto the teeming complexity of the contemporary world. So many are the poets
and writers of diverse countries who integrated surrealism into their own conception of
literature and art. One such integration offers vast possibilities to the imagination,
because one of the important merits of surrealism is to have emitted new and vast
horizons for the relation of the real and the imagination.
Surrealism owes such merits, in large part, to the genius of Andr Breton. If we
do not want to fall into a Manichean vision of the dialectical contradictions of a man,
we must admit that the contradictions of a man of the importance of Breton becomes part
of the drama of modern society, in his aspiration to a fertile synthesis of social liberation
and emancipation of the poetic faculties of mans interior universe. The emancipation of
humanity would be incomplete if it did not emancipate, at the same time as socioeconomic structures, the thirst for beauty, the tenderness and the liberty that constitute the
sources of poetry and art.
The artistic revolution, complement of the revolution tout court, can use the
diverse methods of surrealism to destroy taboos, myths, and absurd and unhealthy
constraints with which capitalism constructs the spiritual misery of its societies.
Revolution, lead to all the stages of the human condition, offers to the people who make
it the possibility of attaining a refreshing dignity, giving vagabond wings to the beauty
of the world. In this way, Andr Breton worked on and added his precise poetic force
[force sonnante de pote] to the glory of modern poetry. It is possible to appreciate the
work of Breton today without forgetting that socialist revolution is the ultimate point
where poetry has the best chance to be the major form of a combustion of the human
spirit and body.