Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Existentialism, Negritude, and the Search for New Meaning

During the nineteenth century, western modernity was at its zenith. Science promised to solve all problems, and colonialism ensured the spread of civilization to the backwards peoples of the world. Because of their position of power, westerners were able to assert their values and views without contest. “The white man has enjoyed for three thousand years the privilege of seeing without being seen” (ON7). Two major processes converged at the beginning of the twentieth century and derailed these views.

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Skepticism made possible the development of science, and was itself supported by the successes of science. Skepticism, first applied to physical theories, was soon broadly applied to values and religion. This lead to the various reforms of the Enlightenment, the development of humanism, and the French Revolution. However, as history progressed it became clear that “reason”, which had thitherto been substituted for God as the basis of meaning, was itself not reliable. In 1882, Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science, “The greatest recent event—that ‘God is dead’, that the belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable—is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe... [Few] people know as yet what this event really means—and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it”. The death of God signified not merely the end of the Christian religion, but the end of absolute values entirely.

The early twentieth century was a time of tragedy in Europe. The physical destruction of warfare was rivaled only by the accompanying loss of faith. One of the most powerful values at the time was that of nationalism—pride in one’s country. The value of nationalism was destroyed, not only by the realization that its consequence was war, but also by humbling experiences of invasion and occupation, and the growing influence of Marxism. Only the United States, which participated but was never occupied, seems to have retained the naïvety and enthusiasm of nineteenth century Europe. The heralded values of science and technology, rather than being a blessing, produced instruments of death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. The discovery of the extermination camps and the use of the atomic bomb at the end of WWII demonstrated clearly the horrors that were the product of western culture. Those values which had been previously held up as a model for the rest of the world, were revealed to be the harbingers of disaster.

Guernica, by Pablo PicassoWhere European art had been dominated by “realistic” images, it was now felt that this type of art could not properly convey the experiences of chaos and disorder experienced during the war. The values associated with realistic art are also associated with science and the western myths that made the war possible. Thus art produced during and after WWII would no longer strive for “accuracy”, but for images that captured a subjective (and thus honest) experience, such as Picasso’s depiction of the bombing of Guernica, Spain. Artists and philosophers were charged with the task of creating new images and values independent of God or Reason.

Existentialism gained great popularity in France after WWII, when Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, who had been members of the resistance, were held up as the new prophets of French thought. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus argues that “even within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism” (from the preface). Camus began by accepting as a foregone conclusion the absurdity of the world. Given that, he attempts to answer the “one truly serious philosophical problem... judging whether life is or is not worth living” (MS3). He wants to prove that it is, but without succumbing to the “nostalgia for unity, that appetite for the absolute” which is the “essential impulse of human drama” (MS17). He limits himself to certain immediately perceptible knowledge, which he describes as “lucidity”. “The world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction.” (MS19). Science cannot answer this problem. It can “describe”, “enumerate” and “classify”, but ultimately it “ends with a hypothesis” (MS19-20) “Blind reason... may claim that all is clear; I was waiting for proof and longing for it to be right. But despite so many pretentious centuries and over the heads of so many eloquent and persuasive men, I know that is false. On this plane, at least, there is no happiness if I cannot know.” (MS21). However, instead of despairing, Camus affirms his life. “The absurd man thus catches sigh of a burning and frigid transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.” (MS60). Thus Camus “makes of fate a human matter” (MS122) and by a sheer force of will, he concludes that “all is well” (MS123). Camus’ writings are some of the most important of the post-war period. His work is both an example of the new direction of literature in the twentieth century, and also an expression of the grim tone that was felt all over Europe during those years.

In the nineteenth century, France was one of the greatest and most prestigious empires. The French identity was based around the preeminence of French civilization and culture. Thus, for the people of France, the clearing away of old values was a great blow. In the Caribbean, the experience was quite different. The realization that European values were false was not a condemnation, nor a cause for despair, but rather an opportunity. Where France had benefited greatly from the systems in place before the wars, the people of the Caribbean had been oppressed as has hardly been seen in the history of the world. Nazism may have ravaged Europe, but slavery and colonialism had ravaged Africa and the Caribbean for centuries. Césaire, speaking of the European middle class tolerance of colonialism said:

Nazism they tolerated before they succumbed to it, they exonerated it, they closed their eyes to it, they legitimized it because until then it had been employed only against non-European peoples; that Nazism they encouraged, they were responsible for it, and it drips, it seeps, it wells from every crack in western Christian civilization until it engulfs that civilization in a bloody sea. (BSWM90)

The horrors that Germany inflicted on Europe were prefigured by those that Europe inflicted on Africans and their descendants. At the end of World War II, when Europe finally won freedom from the Nazis, the people of the Caribbean found themselves still under the yoke of colonial control. (Senghor: “Lord, forgive France, who hates occupying forces and yet imposes such strict occupation on me”, LSSCP71) Colonialism was no longer a tolerable condition. The myth of the superiority of European culture had been dispelled, and the time of decolonization had arrived.

In Black Skin White Mask, Fanon argues that “by calling on humanity, on the belief in dignity, on love, on charity, it would be easy to prove, or to win the admission, that the black is the equal of the white. But my purpose is quite different: What I want to do is help the black man to free himself of the arsenal of complexes that has been developed by the colonial environment.” (BSWM30). It is not possible to convince whites to “stop being racist”, but even if it were, it would not relieve blacks from their own self-hatred. According to Sartre, the gaze (le regard) is a way that more powerful groups objectify less powerful groups. The powerful may sit in judgment without being judged. The powerful define the structures of the world, and success requires one to work within those structures. It is very difficult to work in a structure without accepting the values that it implies. The stories of the powerful thus become accepted truth. The less powerful cannot choose their own destinies. They are forced to see themselves through the eyes of the other. In order to restore equality to the colonized, the oppressed must first create new lenses with which to view themselves, they must tell new stories that celebrate their unique existence. This was the first goal of Negritude: to return the gaze. In Orphée Noir, Sartre writes: “Here, in this anthology, are black men standing, black men who examine us; and I want you to feel, as I, the sensation of being seen.” (ON7). In creating a powerful black perspective, Negritude forces whites not only to change their conception of blacks, but of themselves. “A black poet, with never a thought of us, whispers to his beloved... and our whiteness appears to us a strange white varnish which stops our skin from breathing” (ON8). The poet of whom he was speaking is Léopold Sédar Senghor. In his poem Portrait, Senghor speaks with a voice conscious of what Europe has to offer:

Now the European spring approaches me
Offering me the land's virgin scents,
The smiling facades in the sun,
And the grey mildness of roofs
In sweet Touraine.

Perhaps he enjoys the offering, but he also sees through the façade. The mildness of Europe is belied by the frigid curse of colonialism. Soon, Africans will emerge from their hibernations, and the strength of their demands will be greater than those of foreign empires. For now, he waits, appreciating the beauty of the land of Woman.

It still doesn't know
Winter has sharpened my stubborn rancor
Nor the demands of my imperious negritude...

Today, I am content with just the smile
Your precious lips sketch out,
Lost in the sea dream of your eyes
And the wild hill of your hair
Rustling in the wind!

Negritude found a guiding aesthetic and philosophical support in the critical theories of Surrealism. Unlike existentialism, which denied the validity of faith, Surrealism held some truths to be sacred. It rejected European bourgeois values, but rather than foundering in nihilism, Surrealists responded swiftly with a “sacred yes” to “Liberty, life, [and] poetry” (RS174). Surrealism in Europe, which was most popular before WWII, was somewhat narcissistic. It was concerned with liberation, but on an individual scale. As it was primarily practiced by the white middle class, it thus lacked a certain amount of legitimacy in its claims of oppression. But when Surrealism arrived in the Caribbean and Africa, “it extended and renewed itself in negritude, which could have been its coloured child.” (RS228). Negritude was a great realization of Surrealist ideals, both because of the power of its voices (Césaire, Senghor) and also because of it’s scope—Negritude promised liberation not for a single person, but for a whole people, and ultimately, for all people.

In Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, he not only proclaims the death of God, but as a poet, a creator of new values, he proclaims himself His murderer:

I have assassinated God with my laziness with
my words with my gestures
with my obscene songs

and then, celebrating the birth of new values and clarifying his purpose:

oh friendly light
oh fresh source of light
those who have invented neither powder nor compass
those who could harness neither steam nor electricity
those who explored neither the seas nor the sky but whose
without whom the earth would not be the earth
gibbosity all the more beneficent as the bare earth even more earth
silo where that which is earthiest about earth ferments and ripens
my negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against the clamor of the day
my negritude is not a leukoma of dead liquid over the earth’s dead eye
my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral
it takes root in the red flesh of the soil
it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky
it breaks through the opaque prostration with its upright patience

The light Césaire sees is the reflection of his newly-created images of himself and his people. Even if black people were not responsible for the things most celebrated by western civilization, but they are nonetheless essential to the earth. He does not wish to launch himself, viciously and futilely, against the west. Nor will he be blinded, his eyes filled with the rot of a dying white civilization. He takes root in his history, which is dark and bloodied, but which contains passion, and infinite promise. Finally, he breaks through the “opaque prostration”, which is the bondage that all experience when they are defined by color, and passes on to a future transparency where all may stand upright. Even as he proclaims the strength and roots of his people, he simultaneously transcends the limits of that specificity, and thus Negritude becomes universal.


According to René Ménil, the great Martiniquan Surrealist theorist, “The unity of dream and action within man shows that not only is it possible to reconcile our life with our dream, but that it is necessary” (RS154). If, by the rituals of poetry and art we are able to transform our dreams, then we will also transform our actions. Thus, the “marvellous” (the stories that define our world view) “is the image of our absolute liberty. But a symbolic image.” (RS92). We may change ourselves, and by example, others may be changed as well, but we cannot alter the physical laws of the universe. We cannot move mountains save by our own hands. The magic of poetry is not the ability to effect one’s will upon the world without action, but to choose one’s destiny and through one’s actions fulfill it. This is the practical limitation of creation, and the only one of concern for Surrealism. But for the existentialist, another danger exists: dwelling on the tragedy of a lost faith. The final limitation of constructed value is that it is the only value. The sometimes dark tones of existentialism are fundamentally determined by a psychological state—the experience of grief. As when Orestes speaks with Electra in Sartre’s The Flies, “I am free, Electra. Freedom has crashed down on me like a thunderbolt.” “Free? But I—I don’t feel free. And you—can you undo what has been done? Something has happened and we are no longer free to blot it out. Can you prevent our being the murderers of our mother—for all time?” (NE105). He cannot; and neither can we return to a belief in the absolute. Our knowledge, whether we chose it or not, has expelled us from that garden. But this is only a problem if we perceive it to be. As there are no absolute demands of us, we may choose to love life, and thus be satisfied. “What! By such narrow ways—?” (MS122). When Camus says “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”, he does not mean merely that one must have the idea of Sisyphus smiling absurdly, but that one must create this image of man for himself as one creates all value. If we acknowledge that purpose derives only from our own will and what is wrought by it, then our final work becomes possible: the creation of ourselves as beings satisfied with that fact.


BSWM – Franz Fanon, Black Skin White Mask
ACCP – Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry
LSSCP – Léopold Sédar Senghor: The Collected Poetry
RS – Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean
MS – Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
NE – Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit and Three Other Plays
ON – Jean-Paul Sartre, Orphée Noir

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Nietzschean Metamorphoses and Surrealism

The primary texts I draw from in this essay are from the early 20th century Martiniquan literary journal Tropiques. I refer to English translations found in the 1996 anthology, Refusal of the Shadow.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes a parable of metamorphosis. The metamorphosis is not of the body, but of the spirit. The spirit begins as a camel “that would bear much” and transforms into a lion “who would conquer his freedom and be master in his own desert”. The lion's power is “the creation of freedom for oneself and a sacred ‘No’ even to duty”. Then finally the lion must become a child, “innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘yes’”. This description of the development of the human spirit, and likewise, human society, finds an expression in the philosophy of Surrealism.

In Introduction to the Marvellous, René Ménil argues that at any particular point in history, there are certain actions that are appropriate, or powerful. These are those which are in accordance with the “nature” or the “world” (the zeitgeist—this can be taken metaphorically). Human understanding and action develop on a separate but mutually influential course with nature. An era is a period of history in which certain actions and understandings prevail. When nature shifts, humanity follows, but not perfectly nor immediately. “History inevitably turns an era that is drawing to a close into a mockery of history.” During this transitional period, “legend, which is a living people's greatest truth, can no longer be distinguished from news items” (p. 89). When myth no longer correspond to experience, it is reduced to a lifeless and oppressive account; to mortmain. “The great ears of history do not result from the exercise of understanding,” (by which he means agreement), “which is the instrument of human solitude because it is an instrument of appropriation. They are the rewards for mankind’s temporary abandon to life’s powerful shocks. Individuals and peoples, as they integrate with history through their docility to life, thereby cease to restrain their destiny but, on the contrary, advance into their loves and epics with the secret complicity of the world.” (p. 89). It is by expressing the will of the world (as manifest in life’s shocks) that one achieves greatness.

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The reason that people lag behind the progress of nature is that they tend to fall into habits. They put undue faith in the beliefs and conventions of their societies, and do not recognize that they are doing so. They mistake their mores for universal laws and their beliefs for absolute truths. They are uncritical. This is a problem because the beliefs and behaviors that society prescribes and that individuals adhere to tend to be static and thus, even if they were originally appropriate to nature, they quickly become removed from it.

According to Ménil, “we” (meaning the authors of Tropiques) have willfully chosen certain values, namely “Liberty, life and poetry” (p. 174). An uncritical attitude is directly opposed to these values, and opens one up to delusion and exploitation, and historically has lead to imperialism and world war. Thus the impetus for change. Change occurs when individuals have experiences of insight that allow them to realign their beliefs or actions with what is true or appropriate to nature, as opposed to society. These realignments are called “shocks”, and they are precious.

Surrealism is an attempt to systematize the production of shocks so that one can regularly brush away the limitations of thought that would otherwise accrue. Surrealism is thus a kind of mental hygiene.

In the twentieth century, the most destructive mortmain was that of rationalism. It may have been necessary and appropriate to the Enlightenment, but in the modern era, rationalism is an anachronism. Logic stopped being just a useful tool and became a world-view. Logic considered itself, saw clarity and division, and by analogy, took this to be the nature of existence. Through this illogical presumption, those who considered themselves logical started to behave very illogically. This hypocrisy made men into parodies of themselves, and the natural spirit demanded transcendence and integration. “When Breton created Surrealism, the most urgent task was to liberate the mind from the shackles of absurd logic and so-called reason” (Suzanne Césaire, p. 124).
And in Breton’s own words:
Everything leads us to believe that there exists a certain mental point from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived contradictorily. And one would search in vain for a motive in surrealist activity other than the determination of that point.
The rationalistic dichotomizing of reality is the first attitude that Surrealism attacks, but Surrealism is not limited to a critique of rationalism. Nor should it be confused with a mystifying ideology. At another time, that which is accepted as “real” may take a completely different appearance, and to be “sur-real” a person must go beyond that.

And how does Surrealism go about its task?

The power of humor is negation. Humor is a revolt against the values asserted by society. Humor can be bitter, because it reveals the bitterness of our circumstances, “the chasm separating what we are from what we imagine we should have been.” (p. 162). But although it is painful, it is not hopeless. “Humor is precisely the awareness of our diminished and restrained life as well as a revenge against this diminution and restraint and the triumphant cry of the liberated mind.” (p. 162-163). In the recognition of our failure and delusion, we gain independence, and the possibility of new beginnings. There is a transcendent self, a “critical spirit” which transcends the “circumstantial, everyday ego” (p. 163) and makes the transformation possible. This is the part of the individual that is directly connected with nature. “Poetry – whether surrealist or not – is necessarily, in as much as it achieves a certain sincerity, humorous.” (p. 168). Humor is the mark of sincerity because it is the result of acknowledging the folly and imperfection in ourselves as well as our society. It is the irony of our tendency to reify beliefs, despite an acknowledgment of their transience.

Humor has the power of mockery, which is the power to destroy rhetorically. It is a dangerous weapon. “The age is singularly advantageous for an art of humour: the decline of societies and the accompanying difficulties present ideal conditions for it... It is a matter of demoralizing this society, discrediting it, ridiculing it, and making it feel ashamed of itself. In the final analysis we must cause it to lose consciousness of its rights, among which is its right to exist... Art is capable of this feat of strength.” (p. 174). Dada was an application of total humor, but through its totality, it destroyed itself. “Dada was absolute negation and killed itself according to an implacable logic. It made a short circuit of its humour within which it placed itself and its death resulted from this electrocuting force.” Dada’s weakness was its nihilism. Nihilism is ultimately a weak position because although it can destroy old values, it does not know what to do next. It founders in apathy and doubt.

Ménil intends to learn from Dada and not repeat its mistakes. He seeks to “reinvent Dada but in a dialectical way in order to sublate it.” He wields humor as a “miraculous weapon”1, in service of the new values he asserts. “We are people for whom the external world exists and it is not a matter of generalizing mockery to the point of making a desert of our faith. There are questions about which we have refrained from joking. Liberty, life, poetry.” (p. 174). Humor is like Nietzsche’s lion. It destroys old values through its power of ridicule (which is the power of recognizing the absurd). But Ménil is not satisfied merely to be the lion. He will not stay in a land destroyed, but passes on to a world of new values; he becomes, in the Nietzschean sense, a child. How does one become a child?

The Marvellous
The marvellous is an imaginary world “which (unlike the world of real life) finally responds to our fundamental desires and has been constructed accordingly.” (p. 90). The marvellous is a land where “everything is possible”, that is “governed only by the pleasure principle” (p. 91). “The fundamental properties of the marvellous are the very ones that analytic psychology determines as being characteristic of the feelings. If the tale ignores contradictions, it is because the feeling from which it has sprung in the irreducible unity of this intuition, no more contain contradictions than the life whose every moment contains affirmation or denial.” (p. 92). As Césaire says in Poetry and Knowledge, “In the image, A can be not-A” (p. 142). But the marvellous is not just a fantasy. It is “the most stunning revenge we have... against a world that depresses us to the extent that it is in thrall to practical reason.” (p. 91). It is revenge because it allows us to escape, not in the sense of delusion, but of creation. What are called the inevitable struggles of the world are often the product, not of nature as such, but of the beliefs and consequent actions of man. Thus it is the role of art to liberate the minds of individuals, and to realign reality, piecewise, with the superior futures of their imaginings.

“The marvellous is the image of our absolute liberty. But a symbolic image... a compromise... between our deepest tendencies and external necessities” (p. 92). The marvellous succeeds, but not universally. It effects individuals one at a time. It comes unexpectedly, violently, showing man how he has failed and thus enabling him to succeed. “Marvels appear only at the moment when life, in the emotion felt, truly grasps man so as to throw him unwillingly outside the habitual and common conditions of life into unknown and more profound conditions” (p. 92). That which is marvellous is only so at particular times (when it is in accordance with the zeitgeist) and for particular people, who are open to its shocks.

The marvelous occurs in two main manifestations: stories, which are “those cultural expressions that are determined by the life of a people and not tales deliberately composed by an individual”, and poems, which “represent the individual marvellous” (p. 93). “Everyone within a given society can relate to the world created by the story... the spell effected in society through the poem is generally less stable and of a less general scope.” (p. 93). “Stories are a compromise, on the one hand between our deepest tendencies and the external (especially social) necessities, and on the other between these tendencies themselves.” (p. 92). A story can express an enduring truth of human nature, or it can serve a political or financial agenda. We have tendencies both towards greatness and pettiness, selfishness and generosity. All things that motivate us abstractly (that is, beyond immediate physical happiness) are the result of the marvelous.

“In a divided society, the social marvellous is as oppressive as physical reality is, for instance, for some individuals. In a harmonized society the individual marvellous and the social marvellous, although not interchangeable, are reconciled in the effervescence of an exalted social life.” In a divided society, which Ménil certainly believed he was in (as of 1942, and I would assume still as of today), the divide exists between those who are “in tune with their times” (artists, philosophers, and all those who are creative and critical of the status quo) and those who are alienated from their times (the middle class, the masses). The masses only admire “the marvellous of bygone ages”, which is “ready-made or, more accurately, depleted... a sort of cultural waste product”. Those who are “in tune” are moved by the “lived marvellous, a moment that is unique and cannot be detached from an inspiring becoming”, and “which constitutes the keynote of the age” (p. 93). Those who buy calendars of surrealist paintings. but who disdain contemporary art movements are participating in a depleted marvellous. The stories that the masses subscribe to (i.e. materialistic happiness) are oppressive to “some individuals”, by which he means artists, himself, etc. Because he never experienced it, Ménil’s theory of a “harmonized society” exists really just as a hypothetical of what life would be like in one of the “great eras” of civilization, where “life's powerful shocks” keep us awake and ever vigilant. In our era, an “exalted social life” can only be experienced in small groups, when those that possess a shared sense of the marvellous gather. The production of Tropiques was very likely such an occasion.

The internal experience of the marvellous “lives in the mind with the full force of its emotion and... is consequently inseparable from the human body which actualizes it in time and space.” This experience is “crucial to the being to whom it appears... to whom it is specific... The liberty it represents is the liberty of this being.” (p. 94). The marvellous are the stories believed by people, and also the experiences and actions of people in response to those beliefs.

The metamorphic process that Nietzsche describes occurs both in individuals and in societies. The process is cyclical and ongoing. The camel represents the majority of history, the time when individuals accept the rules and judgments of their society and with all their strength uphold them. This is the normal mode of the human mind, where work is possible. In mental revolution, as in physical, it is hard to provide the necessities of existence. The camel is necessary to live in the world. But in the same way, if one stays a camel, one quickly becomes detached from the world which carried on without him. Surrealism is a method by which one can “keep up” with the movements of the world. Humor is a tool for those who are dissatisfied with the stories they currently have. Humor is the Lion roaring fiercely to silence the myths that are no longer useful or beneficial. The Child inscribes new ones with the power of the marvellous. In the dynamic individual, these metamorphoses continue over and over again. The first task of Surrealism is to continually embrace, overthrow, and recreate one’s values; to operate in alignment with the greater forces of the world; to be free. But freedom of belief is not enough. Mental life is only half of human existence, and one must strive to create an external world conducive to freedom. As Breton says “To illuminate the world, liberty must incarnate itself and to do so needs to reflect and recreate itself ceaselessly in the world.” The second task of Surrealism is to apply one’s new values to life itself, to “integrate the marvellous into real life in such a way as to reach some grandeur”. When we “inscribe [myth] onto every banality” (p. 95), only then will life and meaning be coincident. When all of our labors are directed towards liberty, only then can we call ourselves free. To achieve these goals—that is the surrealist quest.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Surrealism in Refusal of the Shadow

Refusal of the Shadow is a collection of caribbean surrealist essays, many from the Martiniquan journal Tropiques. Surrealism, in Refusal of the Shadow, takes several forms. Primarily it is a way of understanding human behavior. Surrealists think that people tend to put blind faith in society's rules and views, and are unaware that they are doing so. The beliefs and behaviors that society prescribes and that individuals adhere to tend to be very far removed from what is true or appropriate. Sometimes, individuals have experiences of insight that allow them to realign their beliefs or actions with what is true or appropriate to the World, as opposed to society. These realignments are called “shocks”, and they are precious.

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Surrealism is also an attempt to systematize the production of such shocks so that they can be triggered regularly and participants can frequently clear away the limitations that would otherwise accrue. Surrealism is thus a sort of mental hygiene. The methods of Surrealism include playing games and creating art in which the subconscious serves as inspiration. The works created often put familiar objects into unfamiliar situations in order to free the artist and audience from their preconceptions.

Finally, Surrealism is a genre of art that resulted from individual applications of the Surrealist methods. According to some Surrealists, the works themselves are worthless—merely waste products. What matters is the transformation that takes place in the individual creating them, and possibly in other individuals who experience the works. Once this type of art becomes common it loses whatever transformative power it had and become merely another one of society's burdens on the individual. Thus artwork that was originally called “surrealist” nay no longer be “surreal” because it is no longer appropriate to the times.

Surrealism in the first two senses has much in common with spiritual paths, in that they are devoted to liberation. The idea that we are not really conscious most of the time and act only out of mental conditioning, but that through certain practices that conditioning can be transcended is very similar to my understanding of Buddhism, although of course the techniques for achieving that transcendence are quite different.

I am working on a real essay that examines texts from Refusal of the Shadow in much more depth. Hopefully I’ll have time to finish it soon.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

I bought my tickets last night. That's it. I'm officially going to France!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Textual Analysis of Aimé Césaire's Poetry and Knowledge

Everything leads us to believe that there exists a certain mental point from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived contradictorily. And one would search in vain for a motive in surrealist activity other than the determination of that point. –André Breton

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The main focus of the essay is the difference between poetic knowledge and scientific knowledge. Poetic knowledge is spiritual and whole, whereas scientific knowledge is “half-starved”. Scientific knowledge is incomplete, but because of its shortsightedness, it is unable to recognize its flaws. For much of modern history, science has been given a kind of sacred status and the result is a depersonalized and impoverished humanity. Poetic knowledge, on the other hand is based on “an astonishing mobilization of all human and cosmic forces” (p. xlvii). What is important is “not the most lucid intelligence, or the most acute sensibility, but an entire experience”. (p. xlvii). Poetry is the union of all experience, including things that scientific knowledge finds incompatible. “In the image, A can be not-A” (p. lii).

The highest ambition of poetry, according to Césaire, is to locate a point “from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived contradictorily.” (Breton, p. xlvii). The resolution of apparent contradictions is wisdom. That which appears contradictory is actually exposing the limits of the system in which it is expressed. Poetry is not bound by any system. “In the image, A can be not-A” (p. lii). “[An] original handling of the word can make possible at any moment a new theoretical and heedless science that poetry could already give an approximate notion of.” (p. xlix). Science is derivative of poetry, because poetry contains everything. “modern science is perhaps only the pedantic verification of some mad images spewed out by poets” (p. lii). A poem is an incarnation of Truth in some smaller truths.


Césaire wrote Poetry and Knowledge in an essay format, but he frequently breaks the rules of standard grammar. He makes statements and allows one to judge them as one judges a work of art, not by what convincing evidence he presents, but rather by experience, by its verisimilitude. Césaire frequently makes use of repetition. He sometimes does not finish his sentences but allows them to trail off: “It was both desirable and inevitable...”, “Poetry ceased...” (p. xliv). A particularly formal expression is made in his list of propositions about poetry (p. lv).

There are many contrasting pairs in Poetry and Knowledge, such as judgment and image, man and nature, Mallarmé and Apollinaire, Dionysus and Apollo, poetry and prose, poetic knowledge and scientific knowledge, precision and feeling.


The paired form suggests analogous relationships among the pairs. On one side is scientific knowledge, based on the principals of precise measurement and logical judgment; it is best conveyed in prose. Poetic knowledge is a knowledge of all of nature, of feeling and imagery. Of course it is better expressed in poetry. The process of analogy is what links these pairs together. Analogy is the creative process of unification. It is the means by which art interacts with life.

This essay is composed of prose and poetry, and is thus whole. It contains rationality, to be certain, but not “the most lucid intelligence”, rather, the “entire experience”. The most logically structured element of this piece are the concluding propositions, but there is an ironic contrast between the highly structured form of the proposition, and the content of those propositions, which are made up of poetic language, and thus cannot be used for argument. Whether or not one has been established as the “living heart of [oneself] and the world” (p. lv) is not a falsifiable proposition.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Gide's Immoralist and Nietzsche's Metamorphoses

This refers to the Dover Dual-Language 2003 edition of The Immoralist / L'Immoraliste.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes a parable of metamorphosis. The metamorphosis is not of the body, but of the spirit. The spirit begins as a camel “that would bear much” and transforms into a lion “who would conquer his freedom and be master in his own desert”. The lion's power is “the creation of freedom for oneself and a sacred ‘No’ even to duty”. Then finally the lion must become a child, “innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred “yes”. Nietzsche seems to be talking about these changes as a process of development in the human spirit, both individual (probably one that he himself underwent) and historical. The camel finds meaning inside the bounds of an accepted system. The camel is dutiful and shoulders every difficulty in order to do what he “shalt” do. What, particularly, one should do of course varied, but the idea that there were particular thing went relatively unquestioned until the 20th century. In modern times, old values still assert their power over us, but they are no longer appropriate, no longer conducive to the highest aspirations of man.

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In André Gide's The Immoralist, a brilliant young scholar named Michel gets married, travels to northern Africa and contracts tuberculosis. The experiences he has during his recovery leave him in a hedonistic mode, unable to depend on the values of his upbringing. Before becoming ill, Michel was like the camel. He performed the most difficult and exacting scholarly work he could find for himself, did not enjoy himself physically, and conformed to the standards of middle class morality. He lived with a sort of puritan asceticism and work ethic. “That sort of austerity, a taste for which my mother had left to me while inculcating its principles, I transferred in its entirety to my studies.” (p. 17/pt. I). As a camel, Michel was also very shortsighted: “Not for a moment did it ever occur to me that I might have been able to lead a different life, or that a different life was even possible.” (ibid.). This unawareness that “God is dead” is essential to maintain oneself as a camel. Once one realizes that he is trapped by old, hollow values, he will soon desire to become a lion and free himself from them.

When Michel first became sick he did not believe he had tuberculosis. He thought his illness had “a different cause; or rather, [he] didn't search for any cause” (pg. 35). It only seemed as if his body was conforming to the affliction of his spirit. Michel's physical illness appeared as a sign of his lack of what Nietzsche called “the great health”, which has little to do with physicality. Michel had never before noticed that he was quite imprisoned by his upbringing (“I did not yet suspect what great power that early childish morality has over us” pg. 17). As he recovered physically, he also wished to recover mentally, spiritually. This is when he began the transition from camel to lion. He renounces his academic pursuits, giving himself over to the sensual, which he had previously denied. Unlike Nietzsche, however, Michel is not able to continue on to the final stage of development. He is stuck as a lion, victorious over the dragon of values, but incapable of becoming the babe. “I've won freedom,” he tells his friends, “but for what?” (p. 185/pt. III). He does not know how to move on from the lion. He desire is to become like the child, “I'd like to start afresh” (pg. 187/pt. III), but he does not know how. This is why, ultimately, he calls on his friends to help him. He is unable to create meaning on his own.

Art as the Mechanism of Cosmic Syncretism

Page numbers given without reference to a particular source are to the Norton Paperback 2002 edition of Death and the King's Horseman. AA=Ambiguous Adventure, Heinemann paperback edition. M&C=Madness and Civilization. Punctuation is placed outside of quotation marks, except when it is a part of the material quoted.

Over the last quarter, we have repeatedly examined the role of ritual, analyzed texts from the framework of cosmos/chaos, the archetype of the sacred monster, and Foucault's concepts of reason and unreason. These ideas come from different sources. Can they be unified? With the framework of “syncretism” can we form a coherent a syncretism of program materials? By relating these concepts with Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman, I have attempted to do just that.

In 1946, in the city of Oyo, the British District Officer interrupted the ritual suicide of the chief horseman of the king of Yoruba. This breach and the dramatic restorative response of the horseman's son represent key events in this history of the Yoruba people. These are the particularities on which the story of Death and the King's Horseman is based, but similar events have no doubt occurred in many societies subjugated to imperial rule. When such a disruption happens, an opportunity is presented for a sacred monster to arise and restore balance.

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Sacred monsters are the agents of constructive change in society. They are those who tap into chaos and use it to transfigure their cosmos. In Death and the King's Horseman, Olunde plays the role of a sacred monster. He travels outside of his cosmos, the world of Yoruba, and into Britain, the heart of the chaos that is imposing itself on his homeland. The actions of the British in Nigeria culminate in tragic results for the Yoruba people, and the only person capable of providing a remedy is Olunde.

As a young man, Olunde left his home for England, which implies that he saw greater value in spending his time abroad. It is apparent that he was encouraged to go by Pilkings, but Olunde's feelings are never directly revealed. Pilkings believes that Olunde left because he did not want to succeed his father as the king's horseman. But that role is among the most honored in the land. Elesin thinks that Olunde left “to seek to obtain the secrets of his enemies.” (p. 63). Pilkings claims that when Olunde left, he was “a most intelligent boy, really bright” (p. 28). Given his intelligence, it is possible that Olunde saw the threats facing his people and chose to go into exile to learn how best to deal with them. Whatever his original intention, it is clear that Olunde has experience with the British imperial mindset. “I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand.” (p. 50) He also had a renewed understanding of his own culture: “Jane: Simon and I agreed that we never really knew what you left with. / Olunde: Neither did I. But I found out over there.” (p. 54).

Elesin is the king's horseman, which is a very important role in Yoruba society. He is as close to the center of that cosmos as anyone. He is elevated by the Praise-Singer and the Women of the market. He boasts of his own greatness and of how he is ready to die “I am master of my Fate. When the hour comes / Watch me dance along the narrowing path / Glazed by the soles of my great precursors. / My soul is eager. I shall not turn aside.” (p. 14) He is approaching “that moment for which [his] whole life has been spent in blessings” (p. 62). He has the support of the entire community, “the honour and veneration of his own people” (p. 53). “He has protection. No one can undertake what he does tonight without the deepest protection the mind can conceive.” (p. 53). Elesin is “a man of enormous vitality, [he] speaks, dances and sings with that infectious enjoyment of life which accompanies all his actions” (p. 9). He has everything to live for. It is not surprising that ending his life is difficult, even with all the encouragement he has received. However, this is a tradition that goes back generations. Many horsemen of the kings of Yoruba have gone through this before. They must all have faced some difficulty, but finally they fulfilled their duties.

The whole community relies on the proper completion of Elesin's suicide. The women of the market previously worried that they had troubled him: “For a while we truly feared / Our hands had wrenched the world adrift / In emptiness.” (p. 17). No person from the Yoruba cosmos could stop the ritual. “No arrow flies back to the string” (p. 44). But Pilkings is from the outside; he is chaos. At the time of action, when Elesin intends to commit suicide, Pilkings appears. His presence has an overwhelmingly disruptive effect, and Elesin is unable to consummate the ritual before he is clapped in irons. As Elesin explains to Iyaloja, “when the alien hand pollutes the source of will, when a stranger force of violence shatters the mind's calm resolution, this is when a man is made to commit the awful treachery of relief, commit in his thought the unspeakable blasphemy of seeing the hand of the gods in this alien rupture of his world.” (p. 69). What is divine but that which is other? The divine may interact with our cosmos to guide the unfurlment of events, but it is never bound to the rule of the world. When Pilkings appeared as he did, as no Yoruba could have, it was like an eclipse or a thunderbolt. He had all the power of a divine intervention, if only temporarily. Elesin had reservations about death, and at the time of the interruption, he was in a trance, operating in a mode of spirit and symbol. Before he could assess the situation rationally, he was taken by the mythic impact of Pilkings appearance: “You saw me struggle to retrieve my will from the power of the stranger whose shadow fell across the doorway and left me floundering and blundering in a maze I had never before encountered. My sense were numbed when the touch of cold iron came upon my wrists. I could do nothing to save myself.” (p. 68).

Olunde has a unique position in the world of Yoruba. As the heir to Elesin, he is able to make reparations for the failure of his father. As a result of his studies abroad, Olunde's cosmos has come to include the world of the British as well as that of the Yoruba. Olunde's intelligence and deep understanding of Yoruba culture allow him to quickly realize what must be done, and to formulate a plan. His exposure to the British has inoculated him against the paralysis that struck his father. He is no longer moved by their alien behaviors: “I am not shocked Mrs Pilkings. You forget that I have now spent four years among your people.” (p. 50). His ongoing relationship with the British gained him the confidence of Jane and Pilkings, and allowed him to proceed unquestioned: “I'd trust Olunde. I don't think he'll deceive you” (p. 72).

Marianne Bailey defined ritual as “calling to the present the energy of when the world first became” (lecture, 9/29/05). Ritual is the apex of the cosmos, steeped in symbols, rife with meaning. The energy that it calls is chaos, but in the overwhelming significance of the ritual, chaos is controlled and at the conclusion of the ritual, the old world has not fundamentally changed. The reversals of carnival are a perfect example of this. During carnival, the powerless assume positions of power, but once carnival is over, the world returns to the way it was. In a special subtype of ritual known as art, chaos escapes into the world and permanently alters it. Art, according to Foucault, “opens a void, a moment of silence, a question without answer, provokes a breach without reconciliation where the world is forced to question itself”. It contains new forms, born of the chaos, which as of yet the world does not recognize. “Henceforth, and through the mediation of madness, it is the world that becomes culpable in relation to the work of art; it is now arraigned by the work of art, obliged to order itself by its language, compelled by it to a task of recognition, of reparation, to the task of restoring reason from that unreason and to that unreason.” (M&C, p. 288) Art is an event, not an artifact, which modifies the language by which chaos will hence be addressed. With art as its fulcrum, the world synthesizes the two sources, its old self and the intruding chaos, and forges a new syncretic cosmos encompassing both.

Francisco de Goya, The IncantationFrancisco de Goya, The Incantation
The creative ritual of the sacred monster is present in Goya's Incantation. The man in the white represents the cosmos, or tradition. He is clothed in white and brightly illuminated, suggesting the light of reason and the purity of internally consistent morality. His face reveals fear at the prospect of the ritual (change). The figures in black represent various faces of chaos. On the far left is the old hag, symbolizing the truth of old age and death. “What overhangs human existence is this conclusion and this order from which nothing escapes.” (M&C, p. 15). To her right is a man wearing a fool's hat and holding a small animal. The fool represents madness and bestiality. His gaping eye sockets suggests that “The head that will become a skull is already empty.” (M&C, p. 16). Next is a woman in a white head wrap. She represents the virgin, the divine aspect of chaos, mysticism. She holds a book, representing the Word, and a torch representing the divine flame which illuminates herself, the book, the demon above her, and the wings of the owl to her right. The final figure is a man with an owl perched on his head, holding a basket of babies. His head appears shaven, an indication of monastic devotion. The jumble of babies he holds is the haphazard jumble of human life. The children, representing potential, are to be sacrificed for the realization of an important particularity (as with Olunde). The owls wings, illuminated by the virgin's flame, suggest the wings of an angel, and the inversion of good/evil in the monk character. Owls represent the wisdom of the night. In the center is the artist, or the sacred monster, who is invoking all these powers of chaos, and bringing them, with much gravity and care to the cosmos who is huddled in the corner. The artist appears similar to the cosmos, but he is colored by the experience of chaos. The cosmos character is colored by the background, by the light of the world. He has his hands clasped in prayer, but as with Elesin, what he is appealing to is only an aspect of himself; it has no power over that which is alien (“My charms, my spells, even my voice lacked strength”, p. 68). The action of this painting is surrounded by darkness. Nearly half of the canvas is solid black. The darkness, the chaos, is much greater than the illuminated focus. Cosmos is about to come into contact with all the forces of night and be transfigured by them.

The interruption of Yoruba death rituals by British authorities is chaos forced into cosmos, but it is not art. Art still possesses the cosmic background, the systems of symbols by which the world may mend a chaotic breach. The action of art is like the action of muscle. Though it may leave the cosmos sore for a few days, the outcome is vitality and strength. When Pilkings interrupts Elesin, that is the action of chaos. The effect is disruption, just as it is when the chaos is the effect of art, but it is without reparation. “You did not save my life District Officer. You destroyed it... and not merely my life but the lives of many.” (p. 62). Only a work of art, that is, a ritual with the power of cosmic transformation, could mend this damage.

Olunde is a sacred monster, fully contained in neither the Yoruba nor the British world but inclusive of both. His actions are thus entirely new, anticipated by neither Pilkings nor Elesin. Olunde's suicide is a work of art, drawing its power from “the madness which interrupts it” (M&C p. 288)--the chaos he possesses in his liminal position. It is through this work that Olunde is able to disrupt both worlds and inaugurate the new channel of their exchange. “The stillness seizes and paralyses everyone, including Pilkings who has turned to look.” (p. 75). Pilkings attempts to blame Iyaloja, but his denouncements are weak. “Pilkings (in a tired voice): Was this what you wanted?” (p. 76). Iyaloja's response is vibrant and full of meaning: “No child, it is what you brought to be, you who play with strangers' lives, who even usurp the vestments of our dead, yet believe that the stain of death will not cling to you. The gods demanded only the old expired plantain but you cut down the sap-laden shoot to feed your pride.” (p. 76). Some balance between the power of the Yoruba and the British has been restored though Olunde's actions. What is to happen next for the Yoruba cannot be predicted. The break with tradition marks an event horizon beyond which the future cannot be known: “What the end will be we are not gods to tell. But this young shoot has poured its sap into the parent stalk, and we know this is not the way of life. Our world is tumbling in the void of strangers” (p. 75). Olunde may have restored meaning to the lives of the Yoruba, but they are still locked in exchange with the British. As the knight says in Ambiguous Adventure “We have not had the same past, you and ourselves, but we will have, strictly, the same future. The era of separate destinies has run its course. In that sense, the end of the world has indeed come for every one of us, because no one can any longer live by the simple carrying out of what he himself is.” (AA79). Individual cosmos are ending as they collide with each other, but new syncretic cosmos are being formed, like Venn diagrams with greater and greater overlapping areas.

A cosmos that is completely stable is devoid of life. Life is energy, which is the action of chaos. Ritual is the means by which cosmos accesses chaos and thus ensure its continued health. Most rituals follow established traditions and do not fundamentally change the cosmos in which they occur. Periodically, though, rituals are performed which have a profound effect on the cosmos, effectively ending it as it previously existed and beginning again with that which is the syncretism of cosmos and chaos. These rituals we call “art”. They are frightening, but critical to progress. Those who perform art are called “artists”, or, in more evocative language, “Sacred Monsters”.

Madness and Reason in Marat/Sade

This text refers to the Dramatic Publishing Company 1993 edition of Marat/Sade and the 1988 Vintage Books Edition of Madness and Civilization.

Marat/Sade is a play that takes place in an insane asylum in Napoleonic France. In it, the Marquis de Sade (who is imprisoned there) directs his own play (with inmates as actors) about of the assasination of Jean Paul Marat during the French revolution. It is a complex play where the reader is often left wondering what motivates the characters, what is reasonable and what is insane. In this essay I attempt to use Foucault's model of reason and unreason to examine the sanity and insanity of several characters, as well as the roles of reason and unreason in the form of the play.

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In Marat/Sade, that which appears completely reasonable does so merely by appealing to one’s biases. That which is familiar is easily extended the benefit of the doubt. The benefit, in this case, is the assumption of reason and humanity. That which is unfamiliar is assumed mad until proved sane. In a world that confines the unknown, the appearance of reason and conformity allows one freedom. But where physical freedom is found, psychic freedom is difficult to maintain. In the “reasonable” world, unreason is still present, but it is taboo, and therefore denied. A person who wishes to succeed in a reasonable society must follow its conventions and maintain the benefit of society’s doubts. Socially prescribed behavior is often so far out of touch with one’s actual values that one must live in a state of constant denial. This is the madness of convention. It is embodied in Marat/Sade by the character of Coulmier. Coulmier claims to be “modern enlightened” (p. 8) and “the voice of reason” (p. 17). However, he frequently interrupts the play to make objections to its content with fallacious arguments that read more like threats: “nobody now objects to the church since our emperor is surrounded by high ranking clergy” (p. 34). Coulmier objects, not because of the truth of what “indisputably occurred” (p. 27), but because of its application to modern times. Coulmier is a member of the “new victorious class” (p. 47) The inmates are members of the defeated class, the poor and oppressed “who always lose the lottery”. As oppression was carried out before the revolution in the name of God (“suffer, as he suffered”, p. 32), in post-revolutionary times it is carried out in the name of reason and its agent, the state.

Experiences of unreason are useful for discovering truth because they allow one an entirely new approach, unencumbered by what Marat calls the “dead ideals, passed from generation to generation” (p. 39). When one in the “Age of Reason” experiences the unreasonable, he can only safely express it within the constraints of the accepted forms of art, religion, and violence. If he expresses ideas conflicting with what is generally accepted, he is bound to be repressed by the majority. This is what happened to Sade. Sade saw the abyss but returned to the world with his faculties intact, well armed with criticism. Sade saw in man the classical madness of bestiality—the “mad animal” who “helped commit a million murders” (p. 37). He became the gryllos, drawing his power from the image of a nature that is indifferent and thus “goads us to greater acts” (p. 29). Sade is conflicted about his beliefs: “I wasn’t capable of murder, although murder was the final proof of my existence” (p. 54). “I hate nature”, he says. He is disgusted, but seeing life as such he cannot believe otherwise. From the darkness, he has been utterly convinced, but though his belief is strong he is doubly unreasonable in his inability to act according to his beliefs.

The character of Marat is a prime example of the madness of presumption. Marat was originally a member of the bourgeoisie with high medical, scientific, and philosophical aspirations, but after early success, his later works were repeatedly rejected, and he fell back into poverty: “turned to the streets he thought it best to join the revolutionaries and beat his dilettante breast crying out The oppressed must rise. He meant of course, I am oppressed” (p. 76-77). Marat personally identifies himself with the revolution (p. 21), and believes that only he knows what is best for France. He sees himself as a tragic hero, bravely defending the people of France against those who seek to exploit them. Foucault writes, “it is because man is attached to himself that he accepts error as truth, lies as reality, violence and ugliness as beauty and justice” (Madness and Civilization, p. 26). Marat’s solution is to incite the people of France to violence, to guillotine all suspected of opposing the revolution. The first thrust of the revolution was a crime of passion, probably necessary for the success of the Revolution. The Reign of Terror, in comparison, is excessive and mechanical. What may originally have been a necessary action becomes a compulsive, corrupting influence. As Corday laments:

What kind of town is this? What sort of streets are these? Who invented this? Who profits by it? I saw peddlers at every corner. They’re selling little guillotines with tiny sharp blades, and dolls filled with red liquid which spurts from the neck when the sentence is carried out? What kind of children are these who can play with this toy so efficiently? And who is judging? Who is judging? (p. 98)

Her last question can be read either as an indictment of Marat, who composed many death lists, or of God, who now seems estranged from the people of France. Sade comments:

We condemn to death without emotion and there’s no singular personal death to be had, only an anonymous cheapened death which we could dole out to entire nations on a mathematical basis until the time comes for all life to be extinguished. (p. 30)

As the play progresses, Marat’s sickness takes hold of him, and he appears more and more insane. First he hallucinates his tormentors of the past, and then himself speaking to the National Assembly. Many speak against him, but primarily Sade. He proclaims his work and his message louder and louder as Sade’s criticism becomes more stinging until finally he begins to understand the sense of Sade’s perspective. “Why is everything so confused now? Everything I wrote or spoke was considered and true, each argument sound. And now doubt. Why does everything sound false?”(p. 94) The justification for Marat’s actions depended on his own infallibility. This is the madness of presumption. When he realizes that he is capable of making bad arguments, or that even good arguments lead to bad results, he experiences great conflict. In order to resolve it, he merely proclaims himself right ever the louder (“No, I am right”, p. 100) and thus with an act of pure unreason restores his prior “reasonable” position.


Marat/Sade is a play about a play, set in an insane asylum. The actors of the interior play are inmates, and therefore we understand that they are mad according to the standards of the period, and possibly according to our standards as well. The inmates are reading lines that were written for them by the Marquis de Sade. In the universe of the asylum, Sade is the center of the cosmos. He has created a puppet world of Revolutionary France where he argues with Jean-Paul Marat, but really only with himself. This cosmos is not stable, though. It is not fortified with reason, as the revolutionary cosmos appears to be to Marat. Rather, it is oozing chaos from the artifice and orifice of each actor. Their madness, their subversions, put every word in doubt.

There is a constant sense of instability, and a confusion of what is truth or madness. Unlike Coulmier, who is able to contain Sade’s criticism physically, by the power of the hospital, and mentally, by categorizing and reducing it to the "unreasonable", we, as Weiss's audience, cannot easily pin down or reduce the meanings. We are forced to consider all perspectives, without activating the blind defense mechanisms that protect us from blame. Weiss’ structure invites us to look deeply at how the dynamics of power and oppression play out in our expectations of what is reasonable and desirable.

If Weiss had just written a play about the French Revolution, it would have been easy to dismiss it as leftist rhetoric, revising history and drawing false parallels with the present time. Instead he took a step back and wrote a play about a play. If he had written the interior play only, we would have had the sense that he was proposing a certain truth. The effect of the play within a play is similar to the effect that Foucault achieves in Madness in Civilization, where by expressing a continually shifting historical discourse, we gain the impression that there is no conclusion, only process. This is different from Sade’s arguments with the fictitious Marat, because in Weiss’ case, as with Plato’s stories of Socrates, Weiss does not appear in the work himself. Weiss has distanced himself from the play, allowing it to exist in our minds without reference to his intentions, without reduction to cliché.

At the end of Marat/Sade, Sade announces, “Our play’s chief aim has been—to take to bits great propositions and their opposites, see how they work, then let them fight it out. The point? Some light on our eternal doubt. I have twisted and turned them every way and find no ending to our play.” (p 110, II.32) This might as well be Weiss speaking about his own work. Reason demands conclusion, but unreason is happy to work in possibilities. Marat/Sade is not a work of pure reason, and we do not use only reason to interpret it. The form Weiss chose for Marat/Sade gives us a full experience that cannot be completely analyzed.

Through madness, a work that seems to drown in the world, to reveal there its non-sense, and to transfigure itself with the features of pathology alone, actually engages within itself the world’s time, masters it, and leads it; by the madness which interrupts it, a work of art opens a void, a moment of silence, a question without an answer, provokes a breach without reconciliation where the world is forced to question itself. (Madness and Civilization, p. 288)

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Plunge your gaze into the mirror of the Marvelous: your tales, your legends, your songs—you'll see inscribed, luminous, the sure image of your Self.

-Aimé Césaire, from the class description

The purpose of this "blog" is to give me an easy way to share what I am writing for and in response to my experience in the program "Sacred Monsters" (from the French, monstres sacrés) at The Evergreen State College. The program has several sections, mine focusing on modern French and Caribbean literature.

There are reading assignments every week. My favorite selections last quarter were Madness and Civilzation, by Foucault, Death and the King's Horseman, by Soyinka, and Marat/Sade by Weiss. I didn't have enough time to do a thorough reading of Clitandres's Cathedral of the August Heat, or Cesaire's Lyric and Dramatic Poetry, but I had the impression that both texts are brilliant, deep, and certainly worthy of a closer examination.

A lot of what I post here is things I have written for class, and thus they may tend to rely on references to whatever materials we have been consuming (reading, watching) as part of the program. That said, I'm trying to make them comprehensible for a more general audience, so that those who are not in the program with me can follow along.

I hope you enjoy what I've written. Please let me know what you think. Leave comments!