In 1945, the French revolutionary poet André Breton took a trip to Haiti. Breton was fascinated by Haiti’s culture and tradition of revolt — and his own talks helped trigger a popular uprising against the country’s dictator, Élie Lescot.
André Breton, photographed in France circa 1940. (Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
In September 1945, the French surrealist poet André Breton was invited to give a series of lectures in Port-au-Prince at the behest of his friend Pierre Mabille, himself the author of a remarkable surrealist-inspired work, Le Miroir du merveilleux (1940). Mabille, recently named French cultural attaché for Haiti, was at the time setting up the Institut français d’Haïti.
On December 4 that year, Elisa and André Breton flew to Haiti from New York where they were living. Testimonials by Paul Laraque and René Depestre show the enthusiastic anticipation that surrounded their visit. The excitement was shared by the young writers of the review La Ruche, Organe de la jeune génération, whose front-page headline on December 7, 1945, proclaimed, “Welcome to the great Surrealist André Breton.”
The Haitian poets revered Breton for his poetry as well as for his long fight for freedom:
André Breton is among those minds whose anti-fascist convictions have spread far beyond the borders of France, to find unanimous approval within every nonconformist setting in the world. . . . Surrealism is the absolute negation of the antiquated values stubbornly adhered to by reactionary writers. His stance at the time of the defeat of France was admirable.
Surrealism Against Empire
If the author of the Surrealist Manifesto accepted Mabille’s invitation, it was doubtless because black culture of the Caribbean was of deep interest to him. Clearly, it included surrealist artists he profoundly admired: the poets Clément Magloire Saint-Aude, Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, and the painter Wifredo Lam.
The Haitian poets revered André Breton for his poetry as well as for his long fight for freedom.
Breton first met the Césaires during his 1941 stay in Martinique. His book Martinique charmeuse de serpents (1948), where he celebrates Aimé Césaire’s Cahier du retour au pays natal as “the greatest lyric monument of our time,” evokes their warm encounter. Somewhat later, Breton paid brilliant homage to the work of Magloire Saint-Aude: “His poetry comes close to possessing the philosopher’s stone, the unheard-of note that subdues the world, the unique cog where the wheel of anguish meshes with ecstasy.”
In his lecture at the Hotel Savoy, Breton described Aimé Césaire — recently elected Communist deputy and mayor of Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique — as having simply provided, alongside the Cuban artist Lam, “the greatest impetus toward new directions for surrealism within the past five years.” In late January 1946, an exhibition of Lam’s work was mounted in Port-au-Prince. “La Nuit en Haïti,” Breton’s essay for the Lam catalogue, described his art as “a unique and trembling testament . . . a flight of egrets at the edge of the pond where today’s founding myth is being created.”
However, Breton’s motive was broader: uniting politics and culture with the poetic. It derived not only from the sympathies of a militant anti-colonialist for “people of color” but also and above all from the conviction, profoundly anchored in surrealism, that so-called “primitive” cultures — like that of the Hopi of Arizona, whom he had visited the previous August, or the Haitian blacks — maintain a privileged relationship with the deepest sources of the human spirit, a relationship unpolluted by the capitalist alienation prevailing in “advanced” Western countries.
In fact, for Breton and the surrealists, the two aspects were closely linked. One of the reasons — and not the least important — for their anti-colonialism was specifically their admiration of the human and poetic nature of the cultures of colonized peoples and their indignation at the attempt by Western powers to impose “modern” capitalist civilizations through the combined force of their military, their missionaries, and their commerce, thus erasing or destroying the “indigenous” ones.
Breton’s remarks to this effect, in a December 1945 interview with the Haitian poet René Bélance, echoed across the island:
Surrealism is entirely in league with peoples of color. On the one hand, we are forever united in opposing all forms of white imperialism and rapacity, as proven by the manifestos published in Paris against the war in Morocco, against the Colonial Exposition, etc.; and on the other hand, because of the profound affinities that link the so-called “primitive” mind with surrealist thought. Both aim to do away with the hegemony of the conscious and the everyday to embrace revelatory emotion at long last. Further, these affinities have recently been substantiated by Jules Monnerot, a black writer from Martinique, in La poésie moderne et le sacré.
The Enchanted World
Published in 1945, Monnerot’s thesis denied the contemptuous description of “primitive mentality” — the stance of canonical anthropology (i.e., that of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl) — to put forth the following hypothesis, which Breton seems to have adopted wholeheartedly:
The Surreal (or the Marvelous) the surrealists strive for can conjure up — avoiding an unacceptable misuse of language — the imaginary-real world of certain “primitives.” . . . But a region of privileged experience stands in opposition to the consciousness of everyday life, which, within our present societies, still claims to tolerate nothing beyond itself.
Breton, in his Ode à Charles Fourier (1947), quotes a passage where Monnerot compares Breton’s approach to that of the Soulteaux Indians:
[Fourier,] I salute you from the cross-roads in sign of proof and from the always potential flight of this arrow preciously ingathered at my feet: “There is no separation, no heterogeneity between the natural and the supernatural (the real and the surreal). No hiatus. There is a ‘continuum’; one might take this for André Breton — it’s an ethnographer speaking in the name of the Soulteaux Indians.”
There, Breton used Monnerot’s words to highlight the secret affinities among the Indians of North America, Charles Fourier (who figures prominently in the Haiti lectures), black cultures of the Caribbean, and surrealism.
Breton’s Haiti lectures returned to this theme from various angles, beginning with the first, when he met with the Haitian poets at the Hotel Savoy on December 5, 1945:
I’m not afraid to assert that surrealism has always highly favored and found exceptional so-called “people of color.” And this derives from a sound basis. . . . My friends and I believe that they have remained NEAREST TO THE SOURCE, and that, within the essential surrealist process that consists of listening to the interior voice that inhabits each individual, we immediately find ourselves reconnecting with what has been called the “primitive” mind — more familiar to you than to ourselves — and which moreover is revealed with an intriguing robustness in Haitian Vodou.
In truth, the so-called “primitive” mind — Breton uses the term very cautiously — is not specific to a particular ethnic group. For him, it describes a spiritual urge shared by all humanity but still scorned and devalued by the West.
The so-called ‘primitive’ mind — Breton uses the term very cautiously — is not specific to a particular ethnic group. For him, it describes a spiritual urge shared by all humanity.
So, what is this source, hidden in the most intimate depths of the human spirit? I would call it magic, that is, the enchantment of the world, manifest in ritual, in language, gestures, dance, myth, images, and objects, that inspires black as well as Oceanic culture and the indigenous cultures of the Americas. Breton — with Benjamin Péret, Michel Leiris, and later, Vincent Bounoure — was gifted with what we may call an anthropology of magic, which was at the same time an anthropology of desire, allowing him to build communicating vessels between hermeticism, romanticism, surrealism, and the so-called “primitive” cultures.
Further, what is magic, and how does it relate to desire? Early scholars of comparative religion Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss (as cited by Monnerot) explain that “the essence of magic is simply the nocturnal belief in the efficacy of desire and feeling.” Isn’t modern poetry, particularly surrealist poetry, basically a magical practice that has no purpose beyond itself, a magic “without hope” (of destroying one’s enemy, of seducing one’s love object . . .)?
Breton’s attempts at understanding Haitian art — in particular the work of the great populist painter Hector Hyppolite — began with vodou.
In Monnerot’s view, romanticism and surrealism shared a profound nostalgia for a “lost world” (I would add “an enchanted world”), a “mythical era” when “poetry, science, clairvoyance, philosophy, religion, and society were not irremediably separate.” This Haiti lecture was directly in line with the surrealist spirit of sympathy — in the etymological sense of the word: a shared pathos — for the cultures known as “primitive” that have retained something of that original magical unity and that have managed to resist the acidic solvent of capitalistic exchange value.
Breton’s reference to vodou was not accidental. It stemmed from a deep interest in the magical cult of the people to which Mabille had introduced him. During Breton’s short stay in Haiti, Mabille invited him to participate in eight sessions of the secret ritual, an unforgettable experience he was to recall a few years later in his preface to a new edition of Mabille’s book, Le miroir du merveilleux:
Pierre Mabille leads me to one of those houm’phors or vodou shrines, where a more or less clandestine ceremony will soon take place. . . . The pathos of the vodou ceremonies has so permanently taken hold of me, with the lingering exhalations of blood and rum, that I am now able to deduce their generative spirit and measure their true significance. I had only to be steeped in their ether to find myself open to the surge of primitive forces they unleashed.
Breton returned from those visits with a wrought-iron fetish to which the vodou practitioners attributed evil powers. According to Roger Caillois, Breton himself seemed ready to believe in it. We should recall the virulent crusade against vodou — the Anti-Superstition Campaign of 1942 — carried out by Haiti’s president, Élie Lescot, in conjunction with the Catholic Church and denounced by Jacques Roumain, which led to the “more or less clandestine” nature of the ceremonies Mabille and Breton attended.
Breton’s attempts at understanding Haitian art — in particular the work of the great populist painter Hector Hyppolite (1894–1948) — began with vodou. During a visit to the Centre d’Art Haïtien, Breton discovered Hyppolite’s work, which “permeated me as though it were the first exhilarating breath of spring.” In 1947 he observed:
As far as I am aware, Hector Hyppolite’s paintings are the first ever to record actual vodou scenes and divinities. . . . Hyppolite’s vision succeeds in reconciling superb realism with exuberant supernaturalism. He has an extraordinary capacity for expressing the sense of anguish that pervades the Haitian climate and for suggesting, through the fusion of greenery and blight, the blurred, elusive image of the country’s foliage. Another aspect of his work is that the results of visual perception blend perfectly with the results of mental representation: for example, in . . . one of his paintings the serpent-god Damballah is neither more nor less real and concrete than the sacrificer, the master of ceremonies and the two priestesses carrying flags.
Like the surrealist poets of the West Indies, and like the painter Lam, Hyppolite, whose work would soon be shown at the 1947 International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris, was another star in the black Caribbean constellation with whom Breton felt in close conjunction during those decisive weeks between December 1945 and January 1946.
With his presentation at the Hotel Savoy, breaking radically with white racism, Western Eurocentrism, colonial paternalism, and missionary “compassion,” Breton relayed the profound meaning he associated with this visit, which for him, like his sojourn among the Hopi in Arizona, had become an initiatory voyage. Thus, Breton saw himself as having come to Haiti not only to offer his own ideas and knowledge but also to listen and to learn — an attitude that helped create a relationship of trust, the well-documented, complicit, good-natured rapport with his Haitian interlocutors: the poets, artists, students, and the simply curious who came to hear him.
Breton saw himself as having come to Haiti not only to offer his own ideas and knowledge but also to listen and to learn.
We might also say that a process of elective affinities was underway — alchemically speaking (as evoked by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his famous novel Elective Affinities) — namely a reciprocal attraction based on close affinities of spirit and feeling (“shared passions”). What makes this encounter unique, however, in the history of surrealism as well as the history of Toussaint Louverture’s homeland is the “coincidence” of Breton’s visit with the outbreak of the January 1946 Revolution that overthrew the hated government of President Lescot.
We could compare this convergence — or effective conjunction — of surrealism and revolution with the events of May ’68 in France. However, by the 1960s, surrealism’s influence in France was already far less clear and was being upstaged by its more visible, dissident offspring: situationism. If the revolutionary mission of surrealism is unmistakable, the conjunction of the surrealist promise with subversive action taking place at that very moment in Haiti was a unique, unprecedented, unequaled event.
Breton’s talk was published on page one of the young poets’ and revolutionaries’ journal, La Ruche. That issue’s immediate confiscation by the authorities was, so to speak, the spark that set off the blast. But why censor that publication? Was it Breton’s lecture? A different article? Or did the entire issue realize the fears of the power structure, thus provoking its cruel response?
Breton’s lecture was in fact accompanied by a commentary lauding surrealism whose subversive intentions were obvious. In any event, the confiscation of La Ruche was — not unlike the 1830 repression of the French press under Charles X — the trigger that rallied the young people of Haiti against the government and led to its ultimate downfall.
Three of the young “bees” associated with La Ruche (“the Beehive”) — Gérald Bloncourt, René Depestre, and Jacques Stéphen Alexis — were among the principal instigators of the “Journées de janvier.” That they were artists — painters, poets, writers — no doubt helped them absorb Breton’s message. Moreover, all three would later see brilliant careers.
The young painter Bloncourt, in exile in France, was to become the most important photographer of the French workers’ movement. Depestre, the celebrated communist poet, was exiled to Cuba under the Duvalier dictatorships. He would later leave both communism and poetry to take up a diplomatic career as Haiti’s representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Alexis, the tragically fated communist writer, author of one of Haitian literature’s most important novels, Compère Général Soleil, was shot dead by Papa Doc Duvalier’s police in 1961.
What did Breton say in his December 5 lecture and in the later ones that might have directly or indirectly contributed — inadvertently, of course, since the author of L’amour fou hadn’t the least intention of setting off an insurrection — to the events of early January 1946? Without exaggerating the importance of his remarks and knowing perfectly well that the young Haitian Marxists had plans for revolution well in advance of Breton’s arrival, we are still convinced that what the surrealist poet said did add something among students, youth, and some of the educated popular classes — a state of mind or climate, a tempestuous atmosphere conducive to a grand, emancipatory fervor.
André Breton, not acting alone but alongside the young revolutionary poets of Port-au-Prince, became a harbinger of the turmoil of January 1946.
This feeling was also buoyed by the hope in 1945 that the defeat of fascism might lead to the abolishment of dictatorships and authoritarian governments all across Latin America. In short, Breton, not acting alone but alongside the young revolutionary poets of Port-au-Prince, became a harbinger of the turmoil of January 1946. Or rather he was the sorcerer, who, like the houngans of vodou, possessed the sacred gift of intoning the magic words that unleashed the thunder . . .
News clippings and testimonials show that the meetings at the Hotel Savoy served as magical encounters between Breton, on the one hand, and the Haitian poets and youth, on the other. A half century on, recollections of their guest’s remarks still kindled enthusiastic, fervent responses. The poet Paul Laraque, for example, recalls:
From the very first words of the Magus, the ambience in the room electrified and reached the point of exploding the mines already planted by the young revolutionaries of La Ruche, whose meeting with Breton at the Savoy in early December 1945 transformed our banquet into the intersection of poetry with preparation for war.
Three themes no doubt resonated powerfully with Breton’s listeners:
1. Surrealism’s insistence on “its unlimited faith in the genius of youth.” Reminding listeners of the adolescent or extremely young individuals who inspired surrealism — Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just, Novalis, Arthur Rimbaud, Comte de Lautréamont — Breton declared, “A hundred years from now, surrealism will continue to insist that lucidity and true power reside in youth.”
Over and above this tribute, Breton’s lecture at the Hotel Savoy reached out with a call to action, a necessity: “Youth must absolutely liberate itself from the inferiority complex — as paradoxical as it seems — which for centuries society has done its utmost to impose upon it.” Only by lifting this burden will youth “succeed in assuming its rightful, decisive voice and force its own audacious solutions upon the everyday.”
It’s obvious that this call to action would embolden the young — the cohort of La Ruche — but also beyond it, all who dreamed of bringing their audacious solution — the social revolution — to Haiti.
2. The tribute paid to Haiti’s revolutionary past, that “beautiful word . . . that, even if not for everyone, immediately evokes very specific events in your history, at the least the will to freedom that has never failed,” that “brief, dynamic word, shared by the few who continue to move FORWARD.” And there too, the message was clear for all who believed in securing freedom for the Haitian people.
3. In conclusion, Breton quoted a passage from the poetic novel Gouverneurs de la rosée, by the Haitian communist writer Jacques Roumain, who had died in 1945:
It’s true, we are poor, we are unhappy; it’s true, we are miserable. But brother, that’s only because we’re ignorant: we don’t yet know what a force we are, a united force, all the blacks of the plains and the hills, in solidarity. Someday, when we realize this truth, we’ll rise up from the depths and breadth of the land to join together in a general assembly of the Masters of the Dew, in a great collective effort of workers on the land to clear away the misery and plant a new life.
How could those young people, excited about surrealism and also disciples of Roumain, not respond to the passage quoted by Breton — an undeniable call for general uprising, “from the depths and breadth of the land,” by the poor, the miserable, the wretched of the earth?
We also note that sympathy for, and in some cases membership in, the Communist Party by the La Ruche cohort, did not stand in the way of the mutual comprehension or affinity claimed by Breton “that overcomes any age difference between us.” This was in spite of Breton’s friendship with Leon Trotsky, with whom he had founded in 1938 the anti-Stalinist Federation for an Independent Revolutionary Art (FIARI). In France, such mutual sympathy between the surrealist poet and young Communist activists would have been impossible in 1945.
Poetry and Revolution
Thus, we may hypothesize that Breton’s Hotel Savoy talk produced a magnetic field, charged by poetry, between Breton and the Haitian youth avant-garde. His words, particularly his conclusion, can easily be seen as a signal to the young and the poor to rise up, rediscover the path to emancipation, and sow the seeds of a new future. By publishing Breton’s lecture in their journal, the young poets legitimized their militant approach and laid the groundwork for subversive action. Repressive measures by the government in power only accelerated the process . . .
By publishing Breton’s lecture in their journal, the young poets legitimized their militant approach and laid the groundwork for subversive action.
The first lecture at the Théâtre Rex, on December 20, 1945, titled simply “Surrealism,” likely also helped ready the tropical hurricane that, a few weeks later, was to sweep away Lescot, along with the rest of his dullards and birdbrains. Depestre, who was present and remembers it vividly, has commented that Breton’s message
was received excitedly by the imaginations of the young people filling the hall. They applauded and cheered . . . carried aloft on Breton’s contagious lyricism like birds who discovered that the tree where they’d alighted was itself a miracle of music and freedom. . . . As soon as Breton took the floor, we knew we were about to unleash, well before its time, mutatis mutandis, a formidable “May ’68” in the Haitian tropics.
Addressing a larger crowd than at the Savoy, Breton broached a topic he had barely touched on in his earlier talk, one dear to the young Marxists: the poverty of the Haitian people, their “not only precarious but pathetic situation.” Also, more explicitly than on December 5, he invoked Haiti’s revolutionary tradition “that provided the strength, first to withstand and later to shake off each and every yoke. The soul of its endurance is its African heritage, transplanted here, that continues to bear fruit, even in shackles.”
For Breton, this wasn’t just a historical reminiscence but an ongoing reality, thanks to “the abiding desire for liberty and the unshakable affirmation of the dignity of your people.” Whatever the speaker’s original intention, his words could also be taken as a summons to throw off the yoke of an oppressive and authoritarian power.
In a few succinct paragraphs, the lecture sketched out the history and development of surrealism, starting in 1919 with Breton’s “little sentence” — “There is a man cut in two by a window” — that revealed an entire uncharted universe and became the “dark lantern” for his exploration of the depths of the human spirit. Only a year after its founding in 1924, Breton recalled, a significant turning point for the movement was the colonial suppression of Moroccan rebels that touched off public protests, plus the discovery of “dialectical materialism as the sole, powerfully organized, oppositional force, a unique barrier against nationalistic egos, the only hope for universal agreement and harmony.”
Materialism, as reinterpreted by the surrealists, rejected all reductionist methods: therefore, it takes into account not only economics, “whose importance we must take care not to diminish,” but also the element that shapes the moral and psychological life of human society — lyricism. Far from being exclusively the domain of specialists, as it was elsewhere, lyricism emanated from the aspirations of an entire people. These were the premises that, for surrealism, underlay “social action, which, for us, possesses its own methodology in dialectical materialism and which we could scarcely abandon so long as we hold humanity’s liberation as the sine qua non of the liberation of the spirit.”
In this context, Breton mentioned surrealism’s political position, namely anti-fascism, starting on February 10, 1934, in France with the call for a general strike, and later, during the Spanish Civil War — a position based “on loyalty to principles, on rigor, and on the stubborn refusal of all compromise.” He concluded, citing Maurice Blanchot’s question describing surrealism: “How could poetry ever turn away from social revolution?”
Triumph of Youth
With this explicit embrace of Marxism, not yet discernible in his December 5 talk, and with the urgency of the nascent liberating revolution, Breton set himself directly on the same plane as the most radicalized Haitian youth. However, it is hard to know how many of these young people would have subscribed to the surrealist idea that social revolution is not an end in itself but a means of liberating the human spirit.
With his explicit embrace of Marxism, Breton set himself directly on the same plane as the most radicalized Haitian youth.
Note that Breton’s December 20 lecture was published on January 1, 1946, in Mabille’s review Conjonctions, and that this issue was not confiscated by the authorities. Thus, it was read by a wider audience than was present at the Théâtre Rex. Like the earlier talk at the Savoy, it also sowed the seeds (or rather generated the sparks, since seeds are much slower to germinate) of social revolution upon an eminently explosive field.
In his next talk, around January 11, Breton paid homage to the “Five Glorious Days” (January 7–10) of the popular insurrection — sparked by the repression against La Ruche — that brought down the discredited regime of President Lescot. He began by explaining why he feels bound by the need for discretion. “Despite my personal inclination, I trust you’ll understand that the ground rules for my stay in Haiti forbid me to bring up the events that took place last week in your country.” His caution was likely driven by concern for his host, Mabille.
Still, Breton felt free enough to proffer a few “very general” comments, which were nonetheless perfectly on point:
On this very spot we have just witnessed proof that with simple means, very little danger to life, speed, rigor, and clarity that seem unprecedented, youth can do it all, at least it can overcome it all.
He added that youth “cannot only be passionate, it must be honest, with a lifelong commitment to honesty. The youth of Haiti has just distinguished itself as our guide along this path.” Thus, Breton seemed to see in “the events” the confirmation of his wager that youth could impose its own audacious solutions.
Breton showed his confidence in and support of the ‘most aware’ from among these young people, all the while dreading that they might be ‘dispossessed.’
But wasn’t the youth movement that had just toppled the government in danger of seeing its victory snatched away, precisely by the military’s rushing in to fill the power void? Here, Breton noted lucidly:
It is much, but it is not all. After today, youth must also understand how to hold on — and rely on the most aware and the most inspired among them — to take care not to let itself be dispossessed or betrayed.
Breton showed his confidence in and support of the “most aware” from among these young people — a designation that no doubt included the leaders of La Ruche — all the while dreading that they might be “dispossessed,” which in fact quickly happened. His appeal for vigilance was also a call to abstain from dishonorable behavior and opportunistic self-interest:
Youth can only benefit from the priceless fruits of its triumph if it displays an unshakable loyalty to the ideals and principles that allowed it to emerge victorious, and that first of all requires the subordination of self-interest to the interest of all. Above all, it must immerse itself in the belief disseminated today by existentialist philosophy: that disavowal equals true spiritual suicide.
With few exceptions, the majority of the young actors of January 1946 would live up to this high standard, even, as in the case of Jacques Stéphen Alexis, at the price of their lives.
Countering those who would oppose the uncompromising radicalism of the young, Breton delightedly quoted the figure he described as “one of the rare men of action whom I honor unreservedly,” the eighteenth-century French revolutionary, Jean-Paul Marat, the first to denounce the prostitution of political vocabulary by the powerful:
Princes, their ministers, their agents, their flatterers, their valets call . . . the shameful art of deception — politics; cowardly and tyrannical domination — government . . . servitude — obedience . . . faithfulness to the law — rebellion; resistance to oppression — revolt; the demand for the Rights of Man — seditious discourse.
Breton’s second lecture and those that followed are not within the purview of this account, which principally deals with his role in preparing the conditions for the January 1946 revolt. His later lectures are themselves remarkable documents that deserve their own analysis. Briefly speaking, they outlined a genealogy for surrealism that highlighted it as the heir of nineteenth-century revolutionary romanticism.
For Breton, romanticism was not, as our textbooks falsely claimed, a strictly artistic movement, but also and inseparably ‘a philosophical and social movement.’
For Breton, romanticism was not, as our textbooks falsely claimed, a strictly artistic movement, but also and inseparably “a philosophical and social movement.” Contrary to what was taught in school, romanticism’s essential qualities were not to be found in the poems of Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred de Musset, or Alfred de Vigny but rather in the English gothic novel — Horace Walpole, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Charles Maturin — as well as in works by Novalis and Achim von Arnim, Victor Hugo’s poetry, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s thought: “the greatest romantic philosophy.”
In Breton’s fourth lecture, he explained his desire to publish “a kind of critical anthology of liberty.” It was in this spirit that he cited, after Marat and Saint-Just, the social thinkers of romanticism — Henri de Saint-Simon, Barthélemy-Prosper Enfantin, Charles Fourier — and concluded with the pioneering American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan, as quoted by Frederick Engels in his Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: the liberated future of humanity would be a “reanimation — but in a SUPERIOR form, of the LIBERTY, equality, and fraternity of the ancient sort,” that is, the “primitive communist” society of antiquity, but also fundamental to the Iroquois tribes of North America.
Here, we arrive at the heart of romanticism as a world vision and as a sensibility. Romantic culture can be defined as a call to premodern cultural traditions versus industrial capitalist civilization — an appeal that can appear equally regressive or revolutionary. In the latter case, that is, where Breton stands, nostalgia for a “lost paradise” is inseparable from the modern tenets of the French Revolution.
Between the black sun of melancholy (Gérard de Nerval) and the burning embers of rebellion, romanticism, with the energy of desperation — through poetry, magic, utopias, and, at times, mysticism — attempts to kindle the reenchantment of the world. To me, it would appear that romanticism is the central theme of Breton’s entire stay in Haiti, underlying his homage to Haitian “primitivism,” his evocation of the work of Roumain, and finally, his lectures on the sources of surrealism.
The Reign of Liberty
A final, vibrant homage to the events of January 1946 appeared in the eighth and last lecture Breton gave in Haiti, likely on February 12:
Ladies and gentlemen, during one of the darkest periods of history, I will never forget that it was, you, the Haitians, who, under my very eyes, specifically chose what we must term the leap from the reign of necessity to the reign of liberty. To bring it to fruition, you required nothing less than help from the glorious and dramatic powers that forever simmer in your past. Aside from all that I owe you otherwise, that alone would suffice to link me passionately to your destiny.
The phrase evoking the “powers that forever simmer in your past” undoubtedly refers to the black Jacobin revolution led by Louverture in the 1790s. Breton presented himself as a witness (“under my very eyes”) rather than a revolutionary actor, but he clearly attributed great human and historic significance to that astonishing Haitian rebellion.
Getting back to our present topic, the possible influence of Breton on the January 1946 uprising — we may ask, what indeed is the power of an individual’s words? To what extent can words actually inspire social action?
It is said that during the Revolutions of 1848, Mikhail Bakunin was crossing Northern Germany by coach. Curious at the sight of a crowd of peasants surrounding a noble’s château and who seemed not to know what to do, he alighted from his carriage and spoke to them. On departing a few minutes later, as he rounded a corner, he was pleased to see the château aflame . . .
Several historians of the Russian Revolution claim that the speeches of Trotsky, a charismatic orator, had a definite role in preparing the revolutionary climate for October 1917, particularly at the mass meetings held at the Cirque Moderne in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg). However, as the above examples deal with revolutionary leaders whose aim was to arouse social revolution and subvert the prevailing order, they may not be relevant to our case: a poet explaining the emancipatory aspirations of surrealism to a group of young people.
Breton himself regarded his presumed role in the 1946 events with modesty.
Breton himself regarded his presumed role in the 1946 events with modesty. During an interview a few months later, he was asked the following question: “It appears that you had some influence on the revolution in Haiti. Can you tell us what happened there?” Breton’s answer emphasized the grave nature of the prevailing conditions, the revolutionary tradition of the Haitian people, and the role of the rebel youth:
Let’s not exaggerate. Toward the end of 1945, the misery, and thus, the patience of the Haitian people, were at the breaking point. . . . The situation was all the more moving since the Haitian soul, like no other, miraculously continues to draw its sap from the French Revolution itself, and that Haitian history, in a most striking foreshortening, shows humanity’s poignant attempt to break through from slavery to freedom. . . .
In my initial lecture on “Surrealism and Haiti,” I tried . . . to synchronize the surrealist approach with the everyday life of the Haitian peasant. . . . The newspaper La Ruche, organe de la jeune génération featured me in its edition the next day, declared my words electrifying, and assumed an insurrectional tone. The immediate confiscation and suspension of the paper swiftly led to the student strike, followed forty-eight hours later by the general strike. A few days later, the government itself was taken prisoner.
In an earlier interview, published in June 1946, Breton took the same tack, while recognizing the unique and unprecedented nature of the experience he had had: “It would be absurd to say that I alone incited the fall of the government. . . . I was caught up in a turn of events that only comes once in a lifetime.”
Taking Hold of Breton
Even if we accept Breton’s modest assessment of his role, the question remains: What influence could he have had on the participants of January 1946? The question can be phrased differently. In his studies in (Marxist) cultural sociology, Lucien Goldman stated that “influences” explain nothing. On the contrary, what we must explain is why a given author or thinker has chosen, at a specific historical moment, to be “influenced” by another. In other words, what we call “influence” is an active choice, a selection, an interpretation, an implementation, and not a passive “reception.”
What we call ‘influence’ is an active choice, a selection, an interpretation, an implementation, and not a passive ‘reception.’
If we apply this methodological reasoning to our case, we may formulate the following hypothesis: the young “bees” of La Ruche and the most active current within the student youth needed to hear radical words at that moment; they found them in Breton’s presentations. They recognized his words as the expression of their deepest feelings of revolt and hope. They placed them as a banner on their journal. They took hold of them as they would a weapon.
Breton left Haiti a few weeks later, in February 1946. According to some accounts, it was the junta that replaced Lescot (and that would soon be obliged to call for elections), worried about Breton’s dangerous influence on the young, that asked him to leave. (Several months later, Mabille would be relieved of his post.) After a short stay in Martinique and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Breton returned to France. It was on the ship that took him from Puerto Plata to Saint Thomas, where he boarded a plane to the United States and from there to Europe, that he met one last time one of the young people of La Ruche who stood in the front rows during the “Five Glorious Days”: Gérald Bloncourt.Original post