Pioneers of West Indian Surrealism
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by Franklin Rosemont
"No nation now
but the imagination."
— Derek Walcott
Although unremarked by his commentators, C. L. R. James's encounters with surrealism have been sufficiently numerous and significant to warrant a closer look. Let no one be misled by the disparaging allusion, on the last page of The Black Jacobins, to "the dabblers in surréalisme." The evidence suggests that this aspersion was directed not against surrealism, but against dabblers — an attitude with which the surrealists would heartily concur.
Chronologically, surrealism parallels the two movements with which James's life has been most closely intertwined: Leninist Marxism and Pan-Africanism. As an organized revolutionary cultural movement, surrealism began in France in 1924 with the publication of André Breton's first Surrealist Manifesto. Its basic aim was then, as it is now, a thoroughgoing revolutionary social transformation, the elaboration of a truly free society in which the inspiration and exaltation customarily regarded as the prerogative only of poets and artists will be acknowledged as the common property of all. The surrealist program is ably summed up in the battle-cry of the movement's great precursor, the Uruguayan-born poet Lautréamont: "Poetry must be made by all!"
Starting from a position of radical ''idealism," the surrealists quickly advanced through, the successive stages of modern European thought and soon recognized themselves as Marxists. This theoretical clarification and political commitment were accompanied by the rapid growth of the movement worldwide. By the end of the 1920's surrealism was flourishing not only throughout Europe, but also in Argentina and Japan.
The founders of surrealism were Europeans, but their rigorous practice of poetry led them to criticize mercilessly the dominant values and institutions of Christian/bourgeois civilization. Surrealism is the culmination of a long succession of avant-gardes arising out of European High Culture, but it also rejoins and extends the dreams and aspirations of ancient "accursed" traditions, long-forgotten heretical movements, "primitive" societies, as well as emancipatory popular currents in the industrialized countries. In this sense it can be said to represent, epochally, the dialectical supersession of Western culture.
From the start, the surrealists were especially active in the struggle against racism and imperialism. Their orientation in this regard clearly was influenced by Marxism, but it also had a specifically surrealist character. The surrealists have been vociferous in their appreciation of the cultural contributions of nonwhite peoples: their art, their dances, their whole ways of life, so admirably counterposed to the abject miserabilism that has increasingly infected Western culture throughout this century. This appreciation underscored the surrealists' solidarity with the Scottsboro defendants in the U.S. the Vietnamese guerrillas, the Rif tribesmen of Morocco, and the emerging revolutionary movement in the Caribbean.
West Indian surrealism began in 1932, when a group of Martiniquan Blacks sojourning in Paris published a journal, Légitime Défense. Its central figure was the poet and theorist Etienne Lero. "More than a review," Leopold Senghor wrote many years later, "Légitime Défense was a cultural movement. Beginning with a Marxist analysis of the society of the West Indies, it discovered in the Caribbean the descendants of the Negro-African slaves held for three centuries in the stultifying conditions of the proletariat. Léro affirmed that only surrealism could deliver them from their taboos and express them in their integrity."
The journal included Léro's devastating critique of what then passed for poetry in the French West Indies. In opposition to this sentimental, lifeless verse, crushed under the dead weight of white colonialist values, Léro hailed not only the example of his European surrealist comrades but also "the rising wind from black America" — the work of Langston Hughes and Jamaica- born Claude McKay, as well as the great creators of jazz. Surrealism thus had a hand in developing international Black solidarity.
In Légitime Défense we can discern the origins of what would a few years later be known as Negritude. In its twenty-four vibrant pages between blood-red covers, we see the first brave steps of an indigenous French-language Caribbean literature.
In the English-speaking Caribbean, during the same period, much the same role was played by two journals with which James was closely associated: Trinidad and The Beacon, both published in Trinidad. Like Légitime Défense, these journals were characterized above all by revolt, nourished by the growing self-assurance of the forces of West Indian emancipation. And like Légitime Défense, these journals were not narrowly literary; along with poetry and fiction they concerned themselves with art, music, social criticism and politics.
That the Trinidad group did not adopt surrealism is hardly surprising, especially in view of the general delay in the development of surrealism throughout the English-speaking world. A discussion of this question here would take us too far afield; suffice it to say that the first surrealist group in England was organized only in 1936, and yet another thirty years would pass before an indigenous surrealist group would be formed in the United States.
James and his co-thinkers, however, were committed at that time to the principles of literary realism. James's only novel, Minty Alley, is firmly situated in the realist tradition. But one cannot fairly generalize, on this evidence alone, that he would have disdained the views of Légitime Défense. Surrealism is not, in any case, simplistically and absolutely "against" realism. It would be more correct to say that surrealism includes realism as one element in a larger synthesis. Légitime Défense printed an excerpt from Claude McKay's Banjo; André Breton had only the highest praise for Jacques Roumain's Masters of the Dew. Surely Minty Alley is comparable to these.
The community of interests between Léro's Martinique group and James's Trinidad group could be said to constitute an objective link between surrealism and the author of The Case For West Indian Self-Government. As West Indian surrealism expanded throughout the '30's and after, and as James multiplied his international relations, his association with surrealism became direct and personal.
In 1937 he wrote the preface to Red Spanish Noteboo, an important firsthand account of the Spanish Revolution, by Juan Breá and Mary Low. "The pulse of the revolution," James wrote, "beats through every page." Fighters in the workers' militia, the Cuban Breá and his Australian companion were also militants of international surrealism. Their collection of essays, La Verdad Contemporanea (Havana, 1943), was the first full-length work of surrealist theory published in the Caribbean; it was prefaced by Benjamin Péret, one of surrealism's most outstanding figures.
In his preface to Red Spanish Notebook, James refers to Péret as "the great French poet" and one of the leading revolutionists in Spain. In addition to writing numerous volumes of extraordinary poems and tales, as well as important critical studies of Brazilian slave revolts and pre-columbian art, Péret was a lifelong political activist — in France, Brazil, Mexico and in revolutionary Spain, where he served as a militiaman in the Durutti Division.
In his 1962 epilogue to The Black Jacobins James devoted several pages to an appreciation of the Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire and his Return to My Native Land, which James heralded as "the finest and most famous poem ever written about Africa." It also happens to be one of the greatest poetic triumphs of surrealism. Originally published in a journal in 1939, its first integral publication in book form was prefaced by Breton (Paris, 1947). Lydia Cabrera's Spanish translation appeared four years earlier (Havana, 1943), prefaced by Péret and illustrated by the Cuban surrealist Wifredo Lam.
Although he is better known as the leading protagonist of Negritude and a prominent political figure, Césaire has repeatedly affirmed the decisive influence of surrealism — and of Breton particularly — on his life. His journal Tropiques (1941-45) unquestionably represents the high point of surrealism during the second imperialist war.
The activity of the Tropiques group exemplifies the immense ground covered by West Indian surrealism in its first decade. The original impetus of a small nucleus of exiles had effloresced into one of the largest and most active sections of the surrealist international. By the mid-'40's the surrealist presence was evident throughout the islands.
Juan Breá died in 1941, but surrealist perspectives were defended in Cuba by the painter Wifredo Lam, the sculptor Agustin Cardenas, and the poet José Alvarez Baragaño, later a guerrilla in the 26th of July Movement. Carlos Franqui, a leader of the Cuban Revolution, was also an ardent supporter of surrealism.
In Haiti, Clément Magloire-Saint-Aude's Dialogue of My Lamp, Taboo and other works situated him among the finest surrealist poets.
In the Dominican Republic a group formed around the journal La Poesia Sorprendida. Among them was the Spanish exile E. F. Granell, painter and poet, a militia leader in the Spanish Revolution, and author of a lyrical celebration of West Indian folklore, Isla: Cofre mitico. Granell later organized an important surrealist exhibition in Puerto Rico.
At the end of the war, in a "Speech to Young Haitian Poets," Breton avowed that "the greatest impulses toward new paths for surrealism" were coming, precisely, from Black West Indians. Breton's book, Martinique: Snake-Charmer (1948), demonstrates that the Caribbean had become a focal point of the movement. That it has remained a focal point ever since is indicated by the large number of West Indian artists represented at the World Surrealist Exhibition in Chicago, 1976.
In his introduction to the New Beacon reprint of J. J. Thomas's Froudacity, James observes that a particular historical situation "has produced a particular type of social and intellectual activity which we can definitely call West Indian." Aimé Césaire emphasized that for him, as a West Indian, surrealism was "more of a confirmation than a revelation" — above all, a "liberating factor." These insights help define the specificity of Caribbean surrealism: its sense of life brought to the highest tension — its dazzling awareness of human possibilities scarcely even dreamed of yet entirely realizable and, indeed, urgent. Admirably free of the ancient curses, West Indian surrealism proves that everything under the sun can be always new.
In this short paper it is possible to touch on only a few points of contact between James and the surrealists. Several other conjunctions and affinities would require a more detailed presentation. Both James and the surrealists, for example, constantly refer their activity to the philosophy of Hegel. Both regard Herman Melville as a central source. Both have made effective critical use of the discoveries of psychoanalysis. Both had a long association with the Trotskyist movement, and even with Trotsky himself. Both participated in the 1968 Cultural Congress of Havana. Both have long appreciated the revolutionary significance of the Rastafarian agitation in Jamaica. Both have long been admirers of the writings of Wilson Harris, the great poet and novelist from Guyana, author of The Palace of the Peacock and other magisterial works. And both have drawn deeply on the inspired and inspiring traditions of Black music; James's vivid appreciations of calypso, for example, in his Party Politics in the West Indies and elsewhere, harmonize perfectly with the theses advanced by the surrealist Paul Garon in his pivotal study, Blues and the Poetic Spirit.
We cannot conclude, however, without a salute to Toussaint L'Ouverture, that grand historic personage who always has been one of surrealism's heroes — one of those who have given the cause of human freedom its greatest social resonance — and who is also, of course, the subject of James's greatest book. Today it is to The Black Jacobins that one must turn to know the truth, the grandeur, the burning actuality of the San Domingo Revolution.
André Breton was forced to seek asylum in the U.S. during World War II, when the Nazi occupation made it impossible for him to remain in France. In his first U.S. interview the founder of surrealism told of a dream in which he was Zapata, "making ready with my army to receive Toussaint L'Ouverture the following day, and to render him the honors to which he was entitled." Returning to France after the war, Breton stopped in Haiti, where he was invited to speak at the university in Port-au-Prince. As he reaffirmed surrealism's fundamental aims and saluted the island's revolutionary heritage, the students found his words "electrifying." They published his speech in the school paper and, under the headline "Hommage à André Breton," adopted an insurrectionary tone. Several students were suspended, but they organized a universitywide strike. Soon the strike won the support of the workers. In terror, dictator Lescot fled the island. All this happened with incredible swiftness, almost like a dream.
It is in the light of this signal event that I like to regard the common ground shared by C. L. R. James and the surrealist movement. Whether James has ever made a special study of surrealism is not, of course, what really matters. What matters is that at several crucial junctures he has made surrealism's evidence his own. What matters even more is the degree to which, starting from very different points of departure, they have arrived at the same conclusions. And what matters above all is that the points of contact noted here have implications capable of great development.
In recent years James's work has been an important and growing influence on surrealism. And surely his young political followers are discovering for themselves the surrealist adventure. These distinct but related currents are helping to fulfill James's dream of a new and specifically West Indian revolutionary theory and practice, an urgent task not only to guide the destiny of the Caribbean but also, in James's words, to "regenerate the bankrupt West" and, indeed, to help transform the whole world.
It is remarkable that both James and the surrealists avoided the pessimism, disillusion and despair that permeated Western intellectual life — even "revolutionary" intellectual life - after World War II. They avoided it, I am convinced, largely because of their West Indian experience. Today more than ever we look to the islands with mounting expectations, sure that the old promises will yet be kept.
Franklin Rosemont is the editor of Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion.
Légitime Défense and Tropiques, long unobtainable even in libraries, have recently been reprinted by Editions Jean-Michel Place in Paris. An English translation of the Légitime Défense manifesto was published in Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion No. 2 (Chicago, 1973).
Red Spanish Notebook has been reprinted by City Lights (San Francisco, 1979), with a new introduction by E. F. Granell.
Aimé Césaire's Return to My Native Land is available in a bilingual (French and English) edition from Présence Africaine (Paris), and in another translation from Penguin (New York and London). An English translation of Cadastre has been published by The Third Press (New York, 1973). His Discourse on Colonialism is available from Monthly Review.
André Breton's essay on Aimé Césaire, his "Speech to Young Haitian Poets," the anti-imperialist manifesto "Murderous Humanitarianism" and other writings relating to the West Indies are included in What Is Surrealism? Selected Writings of André Breton (New York, Monad Press; London, Pluto Press, 1978). Breton's essays on Lam, Cardenas and other West Indian artists are included in Surrealism and Painting (New York, Harper & Row, 1972).
The best monograph on Lam is Michel Leiris's Wifredo Lam (New York, Abrams, 1972).
Paul Garon's Blues and the Poetic Spirit is published in England by Eddison Press and in the U.S. by DaCapo. See also "Black Music and the Surrealist Revolution" in Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion No. 3, and the surrealist supplement to Living Blues magazine (Chicago, January- February 1976). The second issue (1980) of The Insurrectionist's Shadow, journal of the Surrealist Group in Australia, is entirely devoted to Black music.
For a list of currently available surrealist publications in English, write to Black Swan Press, 1726 West Jarvis Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60626, U.S.A.