Surrealism’s island

Pub date October 22, 2008


REVIEW Since his death in 1966, André Breton has received more than his fair share of knocks. I’ve heard both critics and poets call him "fascist," though if pressed, they can only cite Breton’s sometimes dogmatic leadership of the surrealist movement. Such loose talk is tiresome and ahistorical. A staunch Communist, Breton was nonetheless the first to denounce the totalitarian Stalin when the rest of the French Left turned a blind eye. He never went for Mao like the Tel Quel crowd. As leader of a left-wing movement opposed to Hitler, he was on the Nazis’ Parisian to-do list, and he only narrowly avoided arrest by Vichy authorities in Marseille, escaping to America aided by the efforts of Varian Fry (a sort of Schindler for lefty artists). Breton’s even occasionally criticized for fleeing the Nazis — as if it contradicted his principles — though his accusers tend to lead safe, academic lives. As we see in Martinique: Snake Charmer (University of Texas Press, 96 pages, $19.95), a chronicle of Breton’s stopover between Marseille and NYC, exile’s no picnic.

Breton had his flaws, of course, notably sexism and homophobia, yet even these were complicated, given the number of women and gays within the surrealist group. Most of his positions were politically progressive, particularly his anti-colonialism and anti-racism. Where much of the modernist avant-garde (Pound, Eliot, Marinetti, etc.) was avowedly racist, surrealism was the only movement that welcomed black artists as colleagues and innovators. In Martinique, in reference to the poet Aimé Césaire (who died only a few months ago, at 94), Breton writes: "It is a black man who handles the French language as no white man today is capable of handling it

. . . who is the one guiding us today into the unexplored." (Similarly, Breton would declare the Haitian Magloire Saint-Aude the most important surrealist poet of the post-war period.) Where more sympathetic artists like the Cubists exoticized Africans, Breton identifies with Césaire, "unable to distinguish his will from my own." This might seem naïve in today’s political climate, yet the testimonials by the Martinican and Haitian writers who met Breton in the ’40s — translated in Michael Richardson’s 1996 book Refusal of the Shadow — suggest the feeling was mutual. Maybe it’s not so naïve, for surrealism stretches the limits of the possible.

Like many surrealist books, Martinique is a hybrid work, alternating between "lyrical language" and "the language of simple information," reflecting "intolerable malaise on the one hand and radiance on the other." That Breton could still pursue the poetic marvelous under such trying conditions — on arrival, he’s thrown into a concentration by the pro-Vichy regime and, once freed, is constantly shadowed by police — is extraordinary. He was fascinated by Martinique’s natural beauty, celebrating, for example, the effect of rainfall on the island in surrealist terms: "If the light is the least bit veiled, all the sky’s water pierces its canopy, from a rigging of vertigo, water continually shakes itself, tuning its tall green-copper organ pipes." Not even the uncertainty of his fate could stop Breton’s imagination.

This edition of Martinique — the first in English — is not without drawbacks, the most egregious being the poor reproductions of André Masson’s drawings, seemingly scanned from the French edition. But the translation is admirable. In a society which falsely imagines itself "post-racial," Martinique is essential reading. *