Martinique: Snake Charmer is an important work by a major writer—indeed, a surrealist classic—but for lack of a translation, it has been overlooked in the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world. We are all indebted to David W. Seaman for making this key text available to new readers.
Although it is one of André Breton's smaller books, Martinique: Snake Charmer is big in ideas, insights, inspirations, and implications. The celebrated Martinican cinéaste Euzhan Palcy (whose films include Sugar Cane Alley, A Dry White Season, and a documentary on Aimé Césaire) has called it "the most beautiful of all books" about the island. I would add that a large part of its beauty lies in Breton's absolute refusal to accept the long-lingering "norms" of social, political, and economic ugliness: racism, ecological devastation, poverty, exploitation, and all kinds of unfreedom. Despite the fact that it was first published more than half a century ago, in 1948, this slim volume speaks to the most vital issues of our time.
A Voyage to Martinique
The diverse texts that make up Martinique: Snake Charmer—all of which (except the preface) appeared in print individually long before the book was published—were written during the Second World War. From the Nazi occupation of Paris in June 1940 and the imposition of the pro-fascist Vichy pseudo-government, André Breton—the principal founder of surrealism, poet, revolutionary, implacable foe of fascism and Stalinism—knew little peace until his arrival in New York a little over a year later. This was the most harrowing period of Breton's life. Even his few weeks' respite in Marseilles in late 1940—a highly creative interlude spent in the company of many surrealist friends (Max Ernst, Wifredo Lam, André Masson, Oscar Dominguez, Benjamin Péret, Hans Bellmer, Victor Brauner, Marcel Duchamp, René Char, Jacques Hérold, and others)—was far from unprecarious. On December 3, the eve of Vichy premier Pétain's visit to the city, Breton was arrested and held for four days. The official report described him as a "dangerous anarchist sought for a long time by the French police."
In February-March 1941, Vichy regime censors forbade the publication of two of Breton's books, the Anthology of Black Humor and the poem Fata Morgana, with drawings by Wifredo Lam.
Eventually, with the unstinting help of Varian Fry and the American Rescue Committee, Breton succeeded in obtaining a U.S. visa and was able to secure passage for himself, his wife, Jacqueline, and their daughter, Aube, on a transatlantic steamer, which left Marseilles on March 24. The voyage to Martinique, however, as recounted in this book, was anything but a pleasure cruise. The ship had only two cabins, one for women, the second for individuals favored by the captain. The 350 other passengers, Breton among them, slept on crude mats in the hold. A fellow passenger, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, left us a snapshot of that memorable voyage:
The scum, as the gendarmes described us, included among others André Breton. . . . Breton, by no means at his ease in such a situation, would amble up and down the rare empty spaces on deck, looking like a blue bear in his velvety jacket. We were to become firm friends in the course of an exchange of letters which we kept up throughout our interminable journey; their subject was the relation between aesthetic beauty and absolute originality.
When the ship arrived at Fort-de-France, Martinique, after a month at sea, it turned out that word of the "dangerous agitator" had already reached the island's Vichy authorities. As Breton recounts in this book, he was promptly sent to the Lazaret concentration camp, a former leper colony. Released a few days later, he remained under constant police surveillance throughout his few weeks on the island.
Such were the working conditions, at least for a few months, of one of Europe's greatest writers!
On May 16, after three weeks on the island, the Bretons left Martinique, stopping off in the Dominican Republic to visit the Spanish surrealist painter, poet, and essayist Eugenio F. Granell. In early July, Breton and his family finally reached New York, where outright harassment stopped at last. The FBI, however, dutifully kept Breton under close watch all during his stay in the United States—that is, until the spring of 1946.
Two Snake Charmers
The subtitle, "Snake Charmer," recalls the hauntingly marvelous painting of that name by Henri Rousseau, dated 1907, portraying a shadowy snake charmer playing her flute at water's edge, sheltered by lush rainforest flora and silhouetted against a moonlit sky. As discussed in "The Creole Dialogue," there appears to be no evidence that the reclusive Rousseau ever visited Martinique or anywhere else in the Caribbean, but he painted several such dreamlike "tropical" pictures.
Rousseau's painting in turn recalls the 1890 prose poem "Snake Charmer," by Saint-Pol-Roux:
On tiptoe, figurehead tits, public, naked, arching her back: a crown at her feet, then, uncoiling at a sign from her, the snakes, drowsy just a while ago, lasciviously erupt into those dewy eyes, and the girl suddenly gives herself up to the inferno of spirals the crowd senses are rubies under their scaly shell, while Satan, the ringmaster, sniffs the feast simmering at the bottom of the scum, for the reptiles have already invaded flesh chiseled by living arrows and will consume the soul of the idol swooning, symbolically, in her sly apotheosis of revolutions, a viper's hiss between her cherry lips.
In stark contrast to Rousseau's snake charmer—idyllic, redemptive, peaceful, and harmonious—Saint-Pol-Roux's is restless, defiant, aggressive, nightmarish. All these divergent qualities belong to Martinique, and they all turn up in this book, in Breton's writings and Masson's drawings.
Significantly, Saint-Pol-Roux dedicated this poem to the poet and playwright Alfred Jarry, best known for his raucous Ubu Roi and founder of a new science that he called pataphysics. He was also the first person to champion Rousseau's work as an artist.
Rejecting the neoclassical academic aesthetics still dominant in France in their time, Rousseau, Saint-Pol-Roux, and Jarry, each in his own very different way, boldly emphasized the imaginary, the poetic marvelous, and humor. Breton ardently admired all three. Indeed, they were unanimously recognized by the entire first generation of surrealists as important precursors of the movement, and their work has continued to influence the course of surrealism ever since.
Aside from that backward glance involving the subtitle, this book, in both its poetics and its politics, is fervently oriented toward the present and future. Although written at the height of the war, it is focused—far from the Great Powers that commanded the headlines—on a tiny island in the West Indies. Here, despite appalling poverty, widespread illiteracy, and an oppressive political-economic regime, the author of The Communicating Vessels discovered not only an astounding natural beauty and a vibrant people but also, thanks to Aimé and Suzanne Césaire and their friends, a rare treasure in time of war: a vibrant and dynamic outpost of true poetry and far-reaching revolutionary thought.
In his "Prolegomena to a Third Manifesto of Surrealism or Not," published in the surrealist journal VVV in New York in 1942, Breton urged, against all dominant and repressive ideologies, "opening a window on the most grandiose utopian landscapes." Certain journeys, he argued further, are worth taking "for the sake of the journey itself," especially if they "challenge . . . conventional modes of thinking, the failure of which is only too obvious." Such proposals are akin to the method of "absolute divergence (l'écart absolu) advocated by the nineteenth-century French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, whose works (in five volumes) Breton read for the first time during the war. Deeply impressed by Fourier's visionary radicalism, he wrote a beautiful long poem, Ode to Charles Fourier, which was published in France in 1947. For Breton as for Fourier, what was crucial was not merely to question the dogmas and platitudes of so-called common sense and "established facts," but to deviate from them, absolutely, in an imaginative quest for new and untried solutions to society's gravest problems.
The writings in this book belong to that project.
Origins of Surrealism in Martinique
Breton's interest in Martinique, and even his interaction and friendship with Martinican intellectuals, did not begin with his brief sojourn on the island in 1941. A decade earlier a group of Martinican students in Paris—Etienne Léro, Jules Monnerot, René Ménil, Simone Yoyotte, her brother, Pierre, and a few others—had proclaimed their wholehearted solidarity with surrealism in a small magazine, Légitime Défense (Self-Defense), published in 1932:
This is only a preliminary warning. . . . We are sure that there are other young people like us who could add their signatures to ours, and who—to the extent that it is compatible with remaining alive—refuse to adjust to the surrounding dishonor. And we are against all those who attempt, consciously or not, by their smiles, work, exactitude, propriety, speech, writings, actions, and their very persons, to pretend that everything can continue as it is. . . .
On the concrete plane of modes of human expression, we . . . unreservedly accept surrealism to which, in 1932, we relate our becoming. We refer our readers to the two Manifestoes of André Breton, to the complete works of Aragon, André Breton, René Crevel, Salvador Dalí, Paul Eluard, Benjamin Péret and Tristan Tzara. It must be said that it is one of the disgraces of our time that these works are not better known everywhere that French is read. And in the works of Sade, Hegel, Lautréamont, Rimbaud—to mention only a few—we seek everything surrealism has taught us to find. . . .
It is only by horribly gritting our teeth that we are able to endure the abominable system of constraints and restrictions, the extermination of love and the limitation of the dream, generally known by the name of western civilization.
Emerging from the French black bourgeoisie, which is one of the saddest things on this erth, we declare—and we shall not go back on this declaration—that we are opposed to all the corpses: administrative, governmental, parliamentary, industrial, commercial and all the others. We intend, as traitors to this class, to take this path of treason as far as it will go. We spit on everything that they love and venerate, especially those things that give them sustenance and joy.
And all those who adopt the same attitude as we do, no matter where they come from, will be welcome among us.
Persecution by French colonial authorities made it impossible for the group to bring out more issues of the magazine, and only a few copies of the first seem to have reached Martinique itself. Its impact, however, was considerable, especially on other black students in Paris, including the Martinicans Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, the Guyanese Léon-Gontran Damas, and the Senegalese Léopold Sédar Senghor. In any event, the group itself remained intact for several years, and its members—who also participated in the daily café meetings and other activities of the Paris Surrealist Group—engaged in frequent discussions of Martinique, the larger "colonial question," and other matters at Breton's apartment. Several of the Légitime Défense group contributed to the journal Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution and other surrealist publications, and collaborated on—or at least co-signed—important surrealist tracts, most notably "Murderous Humanitarianism," a denunciation of Euro-American racism and imperialism, which first appeared in Nancy Cunard's celebrated Negro anthology in 1934. Like their friend Henri Pastoureau and other young surrealists in Paris, most of the Légitime Défense group were also active in the radical Federal Students' Union (Union fédérale des étudiants, UFE) and may have collaborated on its paper, L'Etudiant Pauvre (The Poor Student).
Breton's friendship and collaboration with the Légitime Défense group gave him an awareness far greater than that of most Europeans of the reality of Caribbean life and, more generally, of the world's black population. Brief as it was, his 1941 sojourn in Martinique expanded that awareness immensely. The fact that he took time while there to study a two-volume economic history of the island reveals the depth of his interest. It is clear that he recognized—perhaps with Rousseau's painting and Saint-Pol-Roux's poem in mind—that his stay in Martinique involved, as his old friend Michel Leiris put it, a "double experience": first of all, the experience of the "miracle of the tropics," but also, inescapably, the experience of "colonial horror."
The opposite of a tourist, André Breton was above all else a poet and seeker, in the noblest and most daring sense of those words. From start to finish, Martinique: Snake Charmer is a book charged with high emotion. Exaltation, fascination, admiring wonder, and joy are the mood of "The Creole Dialogue" and "Some Trembling Pins." In these texts, his love for the Marvelous—the infinite beauty and magic of tropical nature—is uppermost throughout. In "Troubled Waters," however, the substance and tone are radically different. The latter text proclaims his outrage against the greed, corruption, and injustice of the island's rulers and his solidarity with its exploited and brutalized population. In keeping with his recurring image of the divided eye, introduced in the opening sentence of the preface, both approaches are essential to his vision of the snake charmer's island.
An Extraordinary Encounter
The most consequential highlight of Breton's Martinique adventure was his chance discovery of the journal Tropiques, the debut issue of which had just appeared (April 1941), and his meeting shortly thereafter with its editors, Aimé and Suzanne Césaire. This rich and mutually influential encounter sparked a friendship as profound as it was spontaneous, the basis of which was quite simple: complete agreement on all essentials. With the Césaires and their friends—among them René Ménil, whom Breton had known in the Légitime Défense days—the author of the Surrealist Manifestoes enjoyed long talks and long walks, for his new friends were delighted to show him the island's natural wonders.
Tropiques started out as a modest cultural journal, a forum for the island's aspiring writers, with special attention to Caribbean folklore. Its first issue was already surrealist enough to provoke André Breton's hearty enthusiasm, but with the second issue, which included appreciative notices regarding Breton's and Masson's visit, the journal was well on its way to becoming an all-out surrealist publication, and was soon recognized around the globe as one of the movement's outstanding periodicals.
For Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, who made their living as schoolteachers at the Lycée Victor Schoelcher, Breton's unexpected appearance on the island was an electrifying and exhilarating experience. For the Césaires and their friends, Martinique in 1941 was "an unfortunate little island, completely cut off from the world." Breton's sudden arrival not only led to many lively and fruitful discussions, it also brought the Tropiques group into contact with a vital international community that was poetic, intellectual, artistic, and revolutionary. Soon, thanks to Breton, Aimé Césaire's poems began appearing in the journal VVV, organ of the surrealist exiles in New York, and in other surrealist and surrealist-oriented publications in many lands.
For the entire Tropiques group, those were exciting times. To break through their isolation so quickly and so impressively was a giant step for them, and they could hardly have failed to appreciate the efforts of the strange poet-revolutionary-friend from faraway Paris who, out of his own passion for poetry, freedom, and the marvelous, wanted the voices of Tropiques to be heard 'round the world. Years later, Aimé Césaire told an interviewer that
Breton literally fascinated me. This was a man of extraordinary culture, with an astonishing sense of poetry. . . . He was truly a great man. A poet, a man who spoke admirably of poetry. . . . And moreover, a philosopher. . . . The encounter with Breton was for me a very important thing. . . . I encountered Breton at a crossroads; starting from that moment, my life was all sketched out—it was the end of hesitations. . . . Yes, I had read Lautréamont; but starting from the day I met Breton I reread him systematically with a different eye, a new eye.
Aimé Césaire also drew on other sources, of course: Garveyism, Garan Kouyaté's Le Cri des Nègres, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, the German ethnographer Leo Frobenius's Histoire de la civilisation africaine, Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, and, by no means least, African-American poets, especially Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, and Sterling Brown, along with the Jamaican Claude McKay. It was meeting Breton, however, that made him think of himself as a surrealist. As he put it in a 1967 interview with the Haitian writer René Dépestre:
I was ready to accept surrealism because I had already advanced on my own, using as my starting points the same authors that had influenced the surrealist poets. Their thinking and mine had common reference points. Surrealism provided me with what I had been confusedly searching for. I have accepted it joyfully because in it I found more of a confirmation than a revelation. It was a weapon that exploded the French language. It shook up absolutely everything. This was very important because the traditional forms—burdensome, overused forms—were crushing me.
Suzanne Césaire fully shared these sentiments. Tropiques 5 (1941) included her illuminating essay, "André Breton, Poet"—arguably the best short study of his poetry written up to that time. And a later issue (8-9, 1943) featured her "1943: Surrealism and Us," one of the major texts of West Indian surrealism:
Many believe surrealism is dead. Many have declared it so in writing. What childishness! Surrealism's activity today extends throughout the entire world, and it remains livelier and bolder than ever. . . . Surrealism lives! And it is young, ardent and revolutionary. . . . But surrealism, further proving its vitality, has evolved—or rather, blossomed. When Breton created surrealism, the most urgent task was to free the mind from the shackles of absurd logic and of so-called reason. But in 1943, when freedom herself is threatened throughout the world, surrealism, which has never for one instant ceased to remain in the service of the largest and most thoroughgoing human emancipation, can now be summed up completely in one single, magic word: freedom. . . .
We know how things stand, here in Martinique. Dizzyingly, the arrow of history points to our human task. A society corrupted by crime at its foundations, currently propped up by injustice and hypocrisy, and, in consequence of its unhappy consciousness, terrified of its own becoming: such a society must perish morally, historically, and necessarily. And from the powerful bombs and other weaponry of war the modern world has placed at our disposal, our boldness has chosen surrealism, which in our times offers the surest chance of success. . . .
Far from contradicting, diluting, or diverting our revolutionary attitude toward life, surrealism strengthens it. It nourishes an impatient strength within us, endlessly reinforcing the massive army of refusals.
And I am also thinking of tomorrow.
Millions of black hands will hoist their terror across the furious skies of world war. Freed from a long benumbing slumber, the most disinherited of all peoples will rise up from plains of ashes.
Our surrealism will supply this rising people with a punch from its very depths. Our surrealism will enable us to finally transcend the sordid antinomies of the present: whites/blacks, Europeans/Africans, civilized/savages—at last rediscovering the magic power of the mahoulis, drawn directly from living sources. . . .
Surrealism, tightrope of our hope.
In the same insurgent spirit, Aimé Césaire (interviewed by Dépestre) invoked surrealism as "a liberating force" as well as "a process of disalienation." And in a later interview with Jacqueline Leiner, he emphasized that
Breton brought us boldness, he helped us take a strong stand. He cut short our hesitations and research. I realized that the majority of the problems I encountered had already been resolved by Breton and surrealism. . . . This saved us time, let us go quicker, further. The encounter was extraordinary.
The Césaires' testimony, massive and unequivocal, leaves no room for doubt: they identified themselves with the surrealist cause, defended surrealism against its enemies, and for five years (1941-1945) made Tropiques one of the movement's liveliest and most effective international vehicles. Two years after the journal folded, Aimé Césaire's surrealist commitment was evidenced in his collaboration on Le Surréalisme en 1947, the large catalog of the International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris. Indeed, he made no secret of his unbroken friendship with Breton over the years, or of his dislike of the "socialist realist" verse of the ex-surrealist Louis Aragon, who had become a bigwig in the French Communist Party. Excerpts from one of Césaire's polemics against socialist realism appeared in the Surrealist Group's journal, le surréalisme, même in 1956. Ten years later, when Breton died, the author of The Miraculous Weapons wrote movingly of his old friend as "the incarnation of purity, courage, and the noblest virtues of the spirit."
A Turning Point in the History of Surrealism
Oddly enough, in view of the Martinicans' straightforward affirmations as just quoted, a sizable critical-academic literature has denied their affiliation with the surrealist movement. Not surprisingly, the authors of such denials—Jean-Paul Sartre and Janheinz Jahn, among others—have tended to be openly hostile to surrealism's revolutionary ideas and activity.
In the brilliant essay, "A Poetics of Anticolonialism," which formed the introduction to the Monthly Review Press's fiftieth anniversary edition of Aimé Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism, historian Robin D. G. Kelley reexamined this peculiar dispute. The question of Césaire's surrealism, Kelley pointed out,
is usually posed in terms of André Breton's influence on Césaire. Surrealism in this context is treated as "European thought," and like Marxism, considered foreign to non-European traditions. But this sort of "diffusionist" interpretation leaves no room for the Césaires (both Aimé and Suzanne) to be innovators of surrealism, to have introduced fresh ideas to Breton and his colleagues.
Kelley's clarifying conclusion—that the Césaires "not only embraced surrealism" but also "opened new vistas" for the surrealist movement and contributed enormously to theorizing the "Domain of the Marvelous"—doubtless displeases those who persist in the mistaken belief that surrealism is an exclusively French or European phenomenon, but the hard evidence (starting with the fourteen issues of Tropiques) is all on Kelley's side. André Breton himself repeatedly acknowledged the very reciprocity that Kelley recognized. The aforementioned 1942 "Prolegomena," for example, includes a warm salutation to "my friend Aimé Césaire, magnetic and black . . . who writes the poems we need today, in Martinique." And in a 1945 speech to young poets in Haiti, he declared it
no accident, but a sign of the times, that the greatest impulses toward new paths for surrealism have been furnished, during the war just ended, by my greatest "colored" friends—Aimé Césaire in poetry, Wifredo Lam in painting.
Césaire's later poetry, including Les Armes miraculeuses (The Miraculous Weapons, 1946) and Soleil cou coupé (Solar Throat Slashed, 1948), was similarly admired and featured in the surrealist movement's standard anthologies, in French and other languages. Breton also had only the highest praise for the 1955 Présence Africaine edition of Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism, calling it
a definitive work in which the argumentation is as rich and solid as the expression is ardent and beautiful. The circulation of Discourse on Colonialism constitutes today's spiritual weapon par excellence.
Verily, as Robin Kelley suggested, the encounter was extraordinary on both sides. The Césaires' impact on Breton was no small matter. It would not be going too far to say that the few weeks he spent in Martinique marked an important turning point, not only in his life but also in the history of the international surrealist movement. By adapting surrealism and its strategies to the specific conditions, needs, and desires of the West Indies, the Césaires and their friends broadened and deepened the entire surrealist project. In the spirit of dialectics, this leap into the future also involved a return to original sources. As the editors remarked in Tropiques 2:
The encounter of André Breton and the Antilles has a singular significance when one knows that it is in Negro art, Oceanian folklore and Pre-Columbian America that the post-war artistic revolution has found one of its principal springboards.
The innovations and new paths for international surrealism introduced by the Césaires and other West Indians took many forms and directions. The movement's heightened awareness of the black world and of the richness, immensity, and diversity of black culture was far-ranging. To cite but one example from everyday life, many surrealists since the mid-1920s had loved listening to jazz, but in the 1940s they began giving it much closer attention. Even Breton, who for many years was basically indifferent to music, made it a point to hear black bands in Harlem, and in 1945 he wrote an article on music that dialectically superseded his earlier negative views. By the decade's end, a veritable Thelonious Monk cult had arisen in the surrealist ranks; for Victor Brauner, Roberto Matta, Stanislas Rodanski, Claude Tarnaud, and others, the great pianist whose middle name was Sphere was the living embodiment of surrealism in music.
Original, imaginative, creative work (and play) is indeed of the essence of surrealism, and surrealists the world over recognized and hailed the painters Wifredo Lam, Haitian voodoo artist Hector Hyppolite, and (in the1950s) Cuban sculptor Agustin Cardenas as major contributors to the permanent surrealist revolution: the revolution of the mind and spirit. Honored, too, were the West Indian poets: Aimé Césaire, Lucie Thésée, René Ménil, Léon-Gontran Damas, Juan Brea, Clément Magloire Saint-Aude, and René Bélance, whose highly diverse poetic work met the high standards proposed by Breton in his 1945 interview with Bélance in Haiti:
Poetry must ceaselessly advance; it must explore in every direction the full range of possibilities, manifesting itself, come what may, as a power of emancipation and a harbinger. Beyond the convulsions which seize regimes and societies, it is necessary for poetry to retain contact with the primeval foundations of the human being—anguish, hope, creative energy—the only unfailing reservoir of resources.
West Indian surrealists also gave a powerful impetus, new insight, and new energy to surrealism's revolutionary politics: its fundamental and unwavering aim to transform the world, to change life, to create a truly free society. The theoretical and polemical writings of the Césaires and René Ménil in Martinique and of Juan Brea and his companion, Mary Low, in Cuba are of special interest in this regard. Marxists as well as surrealists, they did much to liberate the prevailing Marxism from outdated ideological and programmatic oversimplifications and to renew it with a free-spirited dialectics rooted in poetry.
During the war years, racism was a major world problem, and not only on the part of the Axis powers. In the United States, thousands of Japanese Americans were herded into concentration camps, and mobs of U.S. soldiers violently attacked Mexicans and African Americans in several bloody "zoot suit" riots. In the West Indies, too, despite the myth of the "happy islands" and "the carefree tropics," racism was a terrible blight. Relentless opposition to white domination and discrimination was a key element in the struggle for West Indian emancipation.
The West Indians' accent on analyzing and fighting racism was not, in fact, new to surrealism: from the North African Rif war in 1925, surrealists in Europe and elsewhere had been in the forefront of anti-white supremacist activity. But here, too, the Tropiques group, along with Juan Brea and others, added unique and valuable insights drawn from the Caribbean past and present.
Surrealism's perspective embraced all "people of color," and it is worth noting, especially since most commentators still tend to ignore it, that starting in the 1920s, surrealist groups flourished in many countries of South America and in Japan, and from the mid-1930s on, also in Egypt.
During the war, the surrealist refugees in New York had no way of communicating with their comrades in Tokyo. Indeed, surrealism had been outlawed in Japan as a "subversive activity," and the Tokyo surrealists were jailed or placed under house arrest. At a time when the U.S. media were filled with the most vicious, racist propaganda directed against the Japanese, it is interesting to note that Breton, exiled in New York, chose to read a book on Japanese culture, Okakura Kakuzo's delightful treatise, The Book of Tea.
With the surrealists in South America and Egypt, communication remained open. In the spirit of international surrealist solidarity, Breton saw to it that the New York surrealist journal VVV and two other periodicals friendly to surrealism, View Magazine and Hemispheres, published texts or reproductions by surrealists from Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Egypt.
In 1945, on a trip to the American West—Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona—Breton visited several Native American communities (including Pueblo, Hopi, and Zuni), read widely on tribal cultures, and even took extensive notes for a book on the subject. From December of that year through March of '46, he was in Haiti and again in Martinique, as well as the Dominican Republic, where, as Eugenio Granell noted in a letter some years later, Breton was particularly interested in "the activity of the black population." To an interviewer in Martinique, he said he still hoped to see Tibet, Alaska (which for Breton was "the land of the Eskimos"), and Easter Island.
Everything suggests that André Breton, inspired by his 1941 Martinique sojourn in the company of black surrealists, spent a considerable part of the war years trying to distance himself from white society.
Was it purely by chance that the Paris surrealists' first postwar tract, "Freedom Is a Vietnamese Word" (1947), was a vehement denunciation of France's imperialist aggression in Southeast Asia?
Women's Liberation and a Proliferation of Books
The rise of West Indian surrealism was also a factor in the increasing number of women in the movement. Breton's Arcane 17 (1944), the first major surrealist work that was also explicitly feminist, was largely inspired by the Chilean Elisa Claro, whom Breton met in New York in 1943 and married a year and a half later. Though rarely acknowledged by critics and historians, Elisa Breton was a powerful presence in the movement and "contributed enormously to the evolution of surrealism." But she was by no means alone in her efforts to unite surrealism and women's liberation. Suzanne Césaire also played a crucial role here. Despite the shameful silence regarding her work on the part of all but a very few critics, she was unquestionably one of surrealism's most forceful theorists during the war years. That Breton regarded her with high esteem is shown by the moving prose poem he dedicated to her, in "Trembling Pins." Other West Indian surrealist women—the poet Lucie Thésée in Martinique, Mary Low in Cuba, Aída Cartagena Portalatín and Amparo Granell in the Dominican Republic—also contributed to this important development.
Increasing, too, in a more general way was the surrealists' interaction with notable black writers, artists, intellectuals, and activists. In Paris after the war, Breton wrote the first important appreciation of the dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham, whose "Ballet Nègre," performed in Chicago in 1931, prefigured the Negritude movement. Dunham and Breton also worked together on the Toussaint L'Ouverture Committee, commemorating the abolition of slavery in France. A little later, Breton worked side by side with novelist Richard Wright in an early French "new left" group, the Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Democratic Union). According to California artist Edith Smith, she and James Baldwin attended several Paris Surrealist Group meetings in 1948-1949.
Paralleling these encounters was a proliferation of surrealist books on black subjects. One of the more interesting U.S. collaborators on VVV, Robert Allerton Parker, had published The Incredible Messiah, a study of the Father Divine movement, in 1937. Another VVV contributor, English-born Canadian Brion Gysin, wrote To Master a Long Good Night, a biography of the black slave Josiah Henson, on whom Harriet Beecher Stowe had based the title character of Uncle Tom's Cabin. In France, Michel Leiris, no longer active in surrealism but still sharing much of its spirit, had meanwhile become a renowned Africanist; his many books include Race et civilisation (1951), Brises (1966), and Cinq études d'ethnologie: Le racisme et le Tiers Monde (1969). Another old-timer, Pierre Naville, who had helped co-found the movement in 1924 and for a time had co-edited the journal La Révolution Surréaliste, translated and introduced C.L.R. James's book, The Black Jacobins (1949). Along with Aimé Césaire, Daniel Guérin, and Michel Leiris, Naville was also involved in the influential journal Présence Africaine.
More specifically surrealist were the monographs and essays on Wifredo Lam by André Breton, Nicolas Calas, Aimé Césaire, Edouard Jaguer, Alain Jouffroy, Michel Leiris, Pierre Mabille, E.L.T. Mesens, Benjamin Péret, and Claude Tarnaud, and books such as Gérard Legrand's Puissances du Jazz (1953), which the African American surrealist poet Ted Joans considered one of the all-time best books on the subject; François Valorbe's Carte Noire (1955), a suite of poems honoring great black musicians and other artists; Paul Garon's illuminating and influential studies of blues poetics, The Devil's Son-in-Law: The Story of Peetie Wheatstraw and His Songs (1971, revised 2003), Blues and the Poetic Spirit (1975, revised 1996), and, with Beth Garon, Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues (1992); Claude Tarnaud's superlative De (completed in the 1960s but not published until 2003), a book centered on African American jazz and revolt; and Gale Ahrens's Lucy Parsons: Freedom, Equality and Solidarity (2004).
"The Greatest Lyrical Monument of Our Times"
No text in Martinique: Snake Charmer has been more widely read or more frequently quoted than the splendid essay "A Great Black Poet," Breton's passionate celebration of the poetic and theoretical work of Aimé Césaire. First published in the journal Hemispheres in New York (and later in Tropiques 11 in May 1944), the essay later appeared as the preface to the first bilingual edition of Aimé Césaire's great poem, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, and has been reprinted in countless subsequent editions in many languages.51
For Breton, that poem was "nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of our times." The fact that it was "by way of exception" a poem "with a subject" if not "with a thesis" did not trouble him at all; he was, to put it mildly, unimpressed by carping critics who, convinced that they knew what surrealist automatic writing was supposed to be like, naively concluded that Césaire's work failed to qualify as such. "Césaire's poetry," Breton pointed out,
like any great poetry and all great art, is of greatest value for the power of transmutation that it engenders. This transmutation consists in beginning with the most base materials, among which are ugliness and servitude, and producing what we now know is the true goal of the philosopher's stone, —not gold, but freedom itself.
Césaire's rightly renowned poem has also appeared with other prefaces, and the academic-critical literature on his work, much of it hostile to surrealism, is voluminous and steadily expanding. It is doubtful, however, if all this material put together has had more than a very small fraction of the influence of Breton's often reprinted 1943 preface.
Surrealism and Negritude
Long recognized throughout the world as one of the greatest surrealist poems, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land is also well known in other contexts. The great Trinidadian Marxist C. L. R. James called it "the finest and most famous poem ever written about Africa" and likened its conclusion to Marx's declaration that the abolition of capitalism (wage slavery) would mark the beginning of "the real history of humanity." For James and for activists in many political and cultural movements, the poem has been widely acknowledged as "a classic of decolonization."
It also firmly established Césaire's reputation as "the poet of Negritude."
It was in fact Aimé Césaire who coined the word Negritude, circa 1935, and according to his recollection, it first appeared in print that year in the paper L'Etudiant Noir, which Césaire edited with the Guyanese poet Léon-Gontran Damas, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, from Senegal. As a current of ideas and action, négritude embodied the affirmation and exaltation of Africa and blackness, prefiguring such expressions as "Black is beautiful" and "Black pride." African American surrealist poet Jayne Cortez, in a 1998 appreciation of Léon Damas, emphasized négritude's enduring value today as a force "to fight the slave master, to defend oneself against negative images, distorted information, cultural and spiritual imperialism."
As a concept, négritude is much older than the word. African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar summed it up long before Césaire was born. In his "Ode to Ethiopia," included in the book Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), Dunbar urged his black brothers and sisters to
Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul;
Thy name is writ on Glory's scroll
In characters of fire.
A proto-négritude spirit was also the essence of the international Garvey movement, in which poetic expression held a high place. In "Black Bards," a poem published in 1921 in the Garveyite paper Negro World, Chicagoan Ethel Trew Dunlap appealed to her fellow poets:
Dip pen in ink and loose the prisoned thoughts
That shall go forth to set a nation free.
As négritude evolved from a small, close-knit cultural current into a worldwide sociocultural and political movement, it began to develop divergent and even incompatible tendencies. The négritude of Césaire and Damas, with roots in surrealism, Marxism, and anticolonialism, pursued revolutionary goals politically while simultaneously encouraging a free-spirited cultural revolution grounded in poetry and poetic action. In this perspective, also upheld by the surrealists, the emancipation of Africa and Africans is regarded as prerequisite to the emancipation of all, and thus to the creation of a new, egalitarian global community. C.L.R. James defined Césaire's Negritude as "what one race brings to the common rendez-vous where all will strive for the new world of the poet's vision."
In his Discourse on Colonialism, Césaire himself set forth his open-ended approach:
It is not a dead society that we want to revive. We leave that to those who go in for exoticism. Nor is it the present colonial society that we wish to prolong, the most putrid carrion that ever rotted under the sun. It is a new society that we must create, with the help of all our brother slaves, a society rich with all the productive power of modern times, warm with all the fraternity of olden days.
Senghor tended to be far more conservative, and eventually became an outright reactionary. Politically demagogic, his négritude blended a naive, pseudoscientific racial essentialism and religious mysticism (Senghor was a practicing Catholic).
Of these two opposing trends in négritude, the Césaire/Damas current has been by far the largest and most influential. Decades after L'Etudiant Noir and Tropiques, Césaire's work—as poet, playwright, polemicist, critic, and political thinker—remains a major inspiration for artists, writers, and activists, not only in the French West Indies and other French-speaking lands but also in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and New Orleans, in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Africa, and even in Brazil, Canada, England, and Australia. Powerful words from a tiny island in the Caribbean fanned the flames of the 1960s Black Arts movement as well as the newer black poetry and theater, dance troupes, performance artists, numerous individual musicians, and organizations such as Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).
When you listen to Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite or to the sounds of Cecil Taylor, Joseph Jarman, Henry Threadgill, Douglas Ewart, Hamid Drake, David Boykin, Nicole Mitchell, and other great musicians of the AACM, and when you read the poetry and narratives of Frank London Brown, Jayne Cortez, Ted Joans, Larry Neal, and Ishmael Reed, don't forget: you're also experiencing a little something of Césaire's négritude—and Césaire's surrealism.
Martinique: Snake Charmer is rightly regarded as a book of Breton's, but it was also a collaborative work. The first edition's title-page, maintained in subsequent editions, includes the lines:
avec textes et illustrations
Masson, with his wife, Rose, and their two sons, left Marseilles on March 31, 1941, a week after Breton, and reached Fort-de-France on April 30. By that time Breton was out of the concentration camp and actively exploring the city. Masson, who fully shared his old comrade's enthusiasm for the island's breathtaking natural beauty as well as for Tropiques and the group around it, joined in discussions and walks with Breton, the Césaires, and their friends.
In his 1974 book, La Mémoire du monde, Masson left us a precious glimpse of one of these outings:
One day, while strolling on the island's Atlantic coast, where the lianas in bloom blended with the foam of the ocean waves, Breton, to my great astonishment, spoke to me of Paradise. Not that of the theologians. . . . No, a true Paradise, here on Earth. . . . Reviewing the paradisiacal utopians, we went from the famous "withering away of the state" to "the end of History," lingering long over Charles Fourier, whom I have always called the Douanier Rousseau of socialism.
To Masson we also owe a description of the origins of "Creole Dialogue." Seated at a table opposite each other, in the heart of the tropical forest, Breton and Masson alternately jotted down responses to observations, phrases, or questions posed by the other, and later lightly edited the joint text for continuity. In other words, like so many great surrealist texts, this lively conversation—part poem, part philosophical treatise, part utopian reverie—proceeded playfully: not exactly as a game, but surely as "time out" from the mundane and routine.
"Antille," Masson's only other text in the book, is a wildly lyrical poem of volcanic intensity and mythic intoxication, evidently inspired by a strikingly beautiful black Martinican woman he noticed during his stay on the island. The same woman later became the subject of Masson's 1943 painting "Antille."
As is only to be expected of one of the surrealist movement's foremost artists, Masson's nine evocative drawings add a dazzling dimension to the text. As the editors of Tropiques noted in their salute to the artist:
Pictorial poetry does not differ in its essence from the poetry of the cinema or from poetry as such. In its different expressions, poetry is one. . . . André Masson does not paint what is, but what is revealed within himself . . . presenting worlds that we have not dared to imagine even in our happiest moments.3
Toward a New Myth?
The critical literature on Martinique: Snake Charmer is not large, even in French; the English-language literature is small indeed. Several biographers have not even bothered to mention the book; others have disposed of it in a few lines. What is still the fullest published discussion appeared in Spanish in 1951. Neither a journalistic review nor an academic essay, E. F. Granell's Isla cofre mitico (Island: Treasure Chest of Myths), published in Puerto Rico, is itself a book, almost as long as Breton's.
One of the great surrealist painters, Granell was a good friend of Breton. He had fought in the workers' militia in the 1936 Spanish Revolution, and after Franco's Falangist victory, he took refuge in France and later in the Dominican Republic, where he co-edited the journal La Poesia Sorprendida (Astonishing Poetry), much admired by Breton. For a time Granell lived in Puerto Rico, where he organized an important surrealist exhibition in 1956. Later in that decade he settled in New York, where for many years he edited the newspaper Espana Libre and played an active role in the surrealist movement in the United States, most notably in the 1976 World Surrealist Exhibition in Chicago.
In Isla cofre mitico, profusely illustrated with his own splendid pen-and-ink drawings, Granell takes the reader on a magical journey through Breton's book. His brilliant commentary, full of imaginatively provocative digressions on history, poetry, folklore, and much else, explores many details in depth. Recognizing Breton's text as a kind of "hymn to the solemnity of primordial nature," Granell in turn expands our consciousness of surrealism's ecological dimension: the ecology of the Marvelous. And as his title suggests, he is also profoundly interested in the mythological aspect of Breton's island adventure. Throughout the 1940s, one of the surrealists' central themes was, precisely, the quest for a new myth: an emancipatory myth that might—just might!—help humankind toward a truly desirable society founded on poetry, freedom, and love. Granell hails Martinique: Snake Charmer as the brightest "anticipator" of this new myth.
A Future Worth Dreaming About
The appearance of Martinique: Snake Charmer in 1948 served notice that the Caribbean was a key place on the surrealist map, that Breton's and other surrealists' experiences on the islands had done much to enrich the surrealist imagination and to expand the surrealist critique, and that West Indian surrealism was itself a poetic, artistic, and political force to be reckoned with.
Like his other major texts of the 1940s—I am thinking especially of the scattered essays pertaining to Haiti and Cuba, as well as "Prolegomena to a Third Manifesto," States General, Arcane 17, and Ode to Fourier—the book on Martinique also opened new doors and windows onto a future full of possibilities worth dreaming about.
The year 1948 was not a particularly hospitable time for prophetic dreaming, and least of all for revolutionary dreaming. In the 1940s, a decade afflicted with massive unfreedom and horrors galore—Nazism, Stalinism, genocide, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—countless intellectuals succumbed to bitter disillusion and despair, turning their backs on all dreams of a better world. Breton had nothing in common with such an attitude. Indeed, he held fast to the highest prerogatives of poetry and continued to champion the Marvelous against all cynicism. Far from diminishing, his revolutionary fervor—his unswerving dedication to the cause of freedom—multiplied in all directions. That is why these writings have proved so helpful, not only to the many surrealist groups that have emerged around the world from the 1950s on but also to a wide range of thinkers and activists who seek viable solutions to the catastrophic problems of our own time.
As always, poetry embodies the strongest criticism. Martinique: Snake Charmer and Breton's other writings of the 1940s look ahead to the surrealists' later critique of what Breton called "miserabilism," defined as "the depreciation of reality in place of its exaltation." Initially descriptive of a particular commercial-political trend in art, miserabilism as a concept was soon found to be applicable to all of late capitalism's dominant ideologies.
Can there be any doubt that Breton's experiences in the West Indies—and in the Native American communities of the southwestern United States—helped shield him from the prevailing postwar gloom in Europe? In the tropics he found boisterous enthusiasm, creative joy, revolutionary promise, a deliriously wild nature—a whole rhythm of life unlike anything he had ever known before; a revelation, one might say, and a confirmation of the surrealist effort "to bring human conduct into equilibrium again, and to restore to humankind a higher understanding of life."
The hints of Paradise he sensed in Martinique and again in Haiti, as in the land of the Hopi and Zuni, were poetic moments of extraordinary power: intensely imagined negations and supersessions of the worst of Western civilization and its out-of-control miserabilist technology. For Breton, who regarded poetry—the unfettered imagination—as limitless and our best means of changing the world, such moments were not to be taken lightly.
As he had pointed out years before, "The imaginary is what tends to become real."