Friday 26 July 2019

Baraka and Surrealism

In 1979 Baraka published an essay on the poet Aimé Césaire, a key source.  The essay, however, is highly critical. Baraka is dismissive of the idea of “the word as magic, and the poet as magician”, which by 1979, he had come to see as being associated with “cultural nationalism and metaphysics”. Baraka’s essay is important, then, because while it shows Baraka to have become almost dogmatically dismissive of some of the metaphors he had used in his youth, it also allows us us to think through what value those metaphors may still have as a revolutionary poetics.

There have been a number of recent claims for an affinity between Surrealism and radical black poetics. Aldon Nielsen has claimed that black poets consciously saw in Surrealism the same struggles that they were facing to reach a consolidation between radical poetics and radical, leftist politics:

For poets such as Baraka, Spellman, Cortez and Cecil Taylor, moving to an avant-garde poetics was never motivated by the desire to evade the political imperatives of race and class. For them a radical politics and radical poetics were virtually inseparable . . . In the surrealists, they located a radically anti colonial politics given formal experimental expression.

Robin Kelley has taken this suggestion further, and has gone so far as to argue that “surrealism served as a bridge between Marxism and the Black Radical Tradition”, and, perhaps in an echo of Baraka’s early claim that simply being black in America is to be a “nonconformist”, claims, somewhat sweepingly, that radical black artists’ “dissatisfaction with socialist realism had to do with the suppression of key elements of Black culture that surrealism embraced: the unconscious,the spirit, desire, magic and love”. Kelley, himself a one-time member of the American Surrealist Group, has recently co-edited an anthology of Black Surrealism, in which he has pointed to the importance of Baraka’s “very long, critical engagement with Surrealism and Dadaism”.

While Baraka was rightly critical of Surrealism, he has never denied certain affinities. In a 1980 interview with William Harris he expressed admiration for Surrealism’s ability to “create strange worlds in which strange things happen”, but with the caveat that, for him, “these strange things (had to) really relate to the real world”.In 1988 he published an essay in tribute to Henry Dumas, an important writer who was a key figure in the Black Arts Movement, and who in 1968 was shot and killed by a police officer in a still unexplained case of “mistaken identity”. Baraka called Dumas an “Afro-Surreal Expressionist”, and praised his “skill at creating an entirely different world organically connected to this one”. Here, Baraka echoes his earlier definition of an image as a “practical vector from the soul”. The artwork can take us to some “weird and wonderful” places and yet if it does not have a “practical” grounding in actual lived being, and if it does not retain a critical and antagonistic relationship with that lived being, then it risks being recuperated into the bourgeois world it claims to despise. Dumas’ version of Surrealism, Baraka claims, runs no such risk, because no matter how “shattered” it may become, no matter how many “excursions and multilayered ambiguities”,

The very broken quality, almost to abstraction, is a function of change and transition. It is a though the whole world we inhabit rests on the bottom of the ocean, harnessed by memory, language, image to that “railroad of human bones” at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Dumas’ surrealism is, for Baraka, ultimately realism, on the basis of the horrific images that are at the base of all African American art. The “railroad of human bones” is not only a striking, surrealist image, it is the memory of the skeletons of captured African still on the bed of the Atlantic Ocean, cast overboard as they died under the unimaginable conditions of the middle-passage. Black Surrealism, Baraka argues, is always ultimately going to be realism, due to outlandishness of the imagery that exists at the base of African American cultural memory. Robin Kelley makes a similar point. While European Surrealism is concerned with the dream, and something they refer to as the “marvellous”, Black Surrealism has more to say about “the multiplicities of Madness, the nightmares, the terrifying hallucinations embedded in the collective black unconscious”

Baraka argues that a Black Surrealist goes further, that the revolutionary content of their work must necessarily be deeper and more profound because, as well as the horror at the base of the collective memory of the descendants of slaves, there is also the question of the imposition of a language. In the essay on Aimé Césaire, Baraka refers bluntly to this as the “conquerer’s language”, and distinguishes between those writers who seek “merely to assimilate themselves” into that language and those who “answer questions that have been posed in the conquerer’s language, by the conquerer’s culture - but ultimately they answer those questions with a language of their own - resistance”.The revolutionary intellectual, or artist, takes the enemy language, and transforms it, turns it against it owners, turns it into a weapon. Frantz Fanon had made a similar point: “(s)ooner or later, the colonised intellectual realises that the existence of a nation is not proved by culture, but in the people’s struggle against the forces of occupation”.

Larry Neal’s insisted that the artwork is just one element in a wider culture both of struggle, and of everyday life, and that the search for new forms in poetry or in art only has validity if it is a part of the struggle for new social forms. Baraka even defined it: a revolutionary artwork, he claimed, must be a “struggle form” the artwork is no longer related to national culture, but to national struggle. For Baraka, this means that a poetic work must not only “really relate to the real world” in terms of its content, or even the transformation of its form, but how it relates to other forms of literary production: in the section of the Autobiography that speaks of his early days in Harlem, he claims that his feelings at that point in his life could be summed up via a triangulation of three books:Aimé Césaire's  Notebook, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and Amilcar Cabral’s Return to the Source.Poetry is not merely brought together with other revolutionary texts: Césaire’s proximity with Fanon and Cabral brings out the political value that is concealed within its poetic value, and therefore, likewise, the poetics inherent in the work of Cabral and Fanon also becomes apparent.

The European Surrealists had had a similar insight, and tried to do equivalent things: they went so far as to demand that Marx and Rimbaud be brought together, in order to transform the latter’s “alchemy of the verb” into “real chemistry”. But Baraka dismisses this as “intellectual pastiche”, and claims that European Surrealism “calls for a disordering finally of the bourgeois world, but it does not really call for its destruction”. He basically accuses them of being petit-bourgeois adventurists, anarchists or ultraleftists with no actual connection with the realities of actual working class struggle. The accusation is preposterous. The history of the Surrealists’ fraught relationship with the French Communist Party ultimately reflects far more badly on the PCF and than it does on the Surrealists. The Surrealists may have had a bourgeois class base, but their revolutionary commitment is clear from their actions. Paul Eluard and Tristan Tzara were both highly active in the French Resistance. Benjamin Peret fought in the anarchist militias on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. Further, the European Surrealists were outspoken supporters of anti-colonialist struggle, some decades before it became common for European intellectuals to take such positions:

Surrealism may have originated in the West, but it is rooted in a conspiracy against Western civilisation [. . .] The Paris Surrealist Group and the extreme Left of the French Communist Party were drawn together in 1925 by their support of Abd-el-Krim, leader of the Rif uprising against French colonialism in Morocco [. . . ] In other words, the revolts of the colonial world and its struggles for cultural autonomy animated surrealists as much as reading Freud or Marx.

Be this as it may, for Baraka, Surrealism was a movement that “confuse(d) bourgeois rebellion with revolution”.But while Baraka’s dismissal of the Surrealists’ political commitments was unfounded, if we apply his criticisms to their aesthetic commitments, things looks slightly different. Baraka - and the Black Arts Movement in general - sees artistic production in a dialectical relationship with other elements of the political struggle, so that poetry is inevitably changed by claiming a relationship with Fanon, or Cabral, or Malcolm X, or even John Coltrane, and further, this is a seen as positive and necessary part of the struggle. While the Surrealists claimed they wanted to conflate Rimbaud and Marx, this never really consisted of anything more than an attempt to elevate the importance of Rimbaud in the eyes of revolutionaries. Poetry and revolutionary theory would always only have a complementary, never a dialectical relationship. They continued to fetishise the figure of the poet, and more precisely, the poete maudite, as always already revolutionary. Benjamin Peret claimed that “the poet of today has no other choice to be a revolutionist or not be a poet”, but this was purely because of the poet’s “accursed”, “outsider” status.This enthusiasm for the poet as cursed outsider led to an uncritical belief in the idea of the poet as magician, which was a position that Baraka had shared, but had come to reject.

Baraka was critical of the poems of Césaire’s that were most obviously influenced by Surrealism, those included in books like The Miraculous Weapons and Solar Throat Slashed. While he admired the aggressive force of the poems, he described them as “an unfocussed torrent of heat, that must be focussed to blast steel”.Rather like his own account of The System of Dante’s Hell’s move from “association complexes” to “fast narrative”, Baraka demands a directness that loses none of the intensity of raw poetic force:

Césaire’s early poetry was influenced by the wild imagery of Rimbaud (A Season in Hell) and Lautreamont, but Retours goes beyond the scope of that imagery . . . . Césaire’s thrashing images dig into the surreal in the sense that they are sometimes wildly unrelated elements, but juxtaposed they make a new dissociation that calls forth new associations and new meanings . . . . wild imagery can cause brilliant new meaning. The power is in the focus on real life that can fuse into a new dialectic seemingly dissimilar elements.

Baraka ultimately feels an affinity with Césaire, and thus his criticisms of Surrealism are less an absolute dismissal of it, than a call for a redefinition of it, that, as we have already seen, the specific character of Black Surrealism to a large extent did undertake. When Césaire's “thrashing images dig into the surreal”, they are actually digging into the surreality of injustice and oppression, as Baraka had noted in his account of the work of Henry Dumas.

When we look at how Césaire described the poetic image, we see how unfair Baraka was being. His own account was wildly convulsive and confrontational:

It is through the image, the revolutionary, distant image, the image that overthrows all the laws of thought, that mankind breaks through the barrier . . . . In the image A is no longer A

That is, as far as Césaire is concerned, his “wild imagery” is going further that merely creating “new meanings” - or even digging into the concealed “old meanings” of the injustices of the past - but is smashing through the barriers put in place by the old meanings and imagery of the bourgeois world.
One of Adorno’s gnomic maxims in Minima Moralia is “the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.This is the poetic image: a magnifying glass that rips into your own eye, transforming everything you see into the horror that it conceals. Another telling passage in Minima Moralia runs as follows:

No science has yet explored the inferno in which were forged the deformations that later emerge to daylight as cheerfulness, openness, sociability, successful adaptation to the inevitable, an equable practical frame of mind.

The poetic image, if understood in the way that Césaire understand it, is just that science. For radical poetry, the image is not the vehicle of exquisite feelings, it is that which can split apart the “deformations” that hide, for example, the “railroad of human bones” that, as we saw Baraka point out earlier on, runs invisibly through thecentre of bourgeois social reality. The image, for Césaire, insofar as it is, in his formulation, “the revolutionary, distant image, the image that overthrows all the laws of thought, that mankind breaks through the barrier”, has the same transformative and revelatory power as does Baraka’s own “practical vector from the soul”. For both Baraka and Césaire the revolutionary image is created by the juxtaposition of the solidly present with an elsewhere, be that understood as the “soul” or the “distant”. Césaire's “revolutionary, distant image” seeks to “overthrow all the laws of thought”. It attempts to enable us to think past what can be already be thought. “In the image A is no longer A”, says Césaire in the Notebook he makes the same point by insisting that “2 and 2 makes 5”. Baraka also attempts to build a poetics from an image that the “enemy” can have no access to because they cannot think it. But for Césaire, the image is more than just a battleground, it is not the case that “we” can think the image, while the “enemy” cannot. Everyone is, in the image, being forced to think inside new structures. It is what happens inside revolutions.


On Archie Shepp’s album Live in San Francisco he includes a poem called “The Wedding” which concludes with the lines  “she retrieved me with the songs of Damballah / and Engels on her lips”: within this incongruous pairing we might find a way to define a poetics of the moment of revolt, of the what Fanon called the “irreversible act”.Fanon is not speaking about poetics, of course, but to the stage in a revolt when there is no going back.

The group requires each individual to have performed an irreversible act. In Algeria, for example, where almost all the men who called on the people to join the national struggle were sentenced to death or wanted by the French police, trust was proportional to the desperate nature of each case. A new militant could be trusted only when he could no longer return to the colonial system.

This moment can be as deadly as a terrorist bomb, or as equally deadly as the voicing of a slogan that so articulates revolutionary decision that the whole situation is convulsed, and utterly transformed. It is at this moment, Fanon argues, that superstition is vanquished, and that the revolutionaries develop a “ravenous taste for the tangible”.I want to argue, then, that Shepp’s imagining of the “song” - a sorrow song, perhaps - of Damballah and Engels, allows us to imagine what happens to the poetic imagination when it meets the irreversible necessities of the revolutionary moment.

Aldon Nielson has claimed that Shepp’s conjunction of Damballah and Engels would have been a shock for jazz audiences of the mid-60s. It was “surely not” what they were expecting, he opines, and, further, it was “not your father’s double consciousness”. It certainly isn’t. Just as we saw Baraka intensify the split that double consciousness implies, and accept the necessity of being torn asunder by it, Shepp grasps that consciousness and turns into a weapon. The magical thinking inscribed within Voudoun and the rationalism of Marxism are placed in a dialectical relation where each exists, in absolute tension, inside the other. This is the revolutionary image as poetic weapon that we outlined in the previous two sections of this chapter. Baraka’s “summoning” of images is reflected in Shepp’s “she retrieved me”, although Shepp has secularised the ritual affect of this summoning.

Damballah is the central deity (loa) of the Voudoun religion, described in Maya Deren’s still definitive account The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti as “the ancient, the venerable father . . . . the great father of whom one asks nothing save his blessing”. A snake god, Damballah is conceived of as being so distant from human concerns that, unlike the other loa, he can barely communicate, and “when he speaks, it is a barely intelligible hissing”. According to Deren, this “detachment” is comforting, and enables access to “some original and primal vigour that has somehow remained inaccessible to whatever history, whatever immediacy might diminish it”. Ultimately, Damballah represents a sense of “historical extension” and “gather(s) up all history into a solid, contemporary ground beneath one’s feet”.While retaining the traditional escapist role of religion as providing a comforting access-point to a realm supposedly existing beyond the injustices of the contemporary everyday, Damballah also allows “all history” - including the history of those injustices - to be gathered into a highly compressed force of energy that, as we have seen, if we think of it as a form of the revolutionary image and therefore can secularise it, can be used to explosive effect.

The idea of a voice that is at the limit of communication and the border of intelligibility is one that appears throughout the history of western radical poetry. In Paradise Lost, when Satan returns to Pandemonium following his successes in Paradise, his transformation into a serpent is registered by Milton primarily via the loss of language:

So having said, a while he stood, expecting
Their universal shout and high applause

To fill his ear, when contrary he hears

On all sounds from innumerable tongues
A dismal universal hiss, the sound
Of public scorn . . .
He would have spoke, 

But hiss for hiss returned with forked tongue
To forked tongue, for now were all transformed 

Alike, to serpents all, as accessories
To his bold riot.

As antagonists to official good, the citizens of Hell have their voices stolen. That is, social antagonism is removed from what Benjamin called homogenous history. Damballah’s comforting silence is here, then, to be understood as the Hell of enforced silence. In a further example, Blake’s Urizen, in The Four Zoas cannot communicate to the “horrid shapes and sights of torment” in the Abyss: his words, whether “soothing or furious” are “but an inarticulate thunder”, and the citizens of the Abyss (or Hell, or the Factory) cannot hear them.Unlike in Milton, language has not been lost, but it has lost the ability to communicate to those for whom it is intended. Similarly, Shelley’s poetry is full of a sense of liberatory language as that which comes from a distant so great that it can barely, if at all, be heard: the spirit of Liberty in Laon and Cynthia speaks in a “strange melody / that might not belong on earth” , while in Prometheus Unbound we are told that we cannot hear if we can not hear “the language of the dead”. Unlike the “barely intelligible” communications of Damballah there is no comfort to be had. But that is just fine. The comfort that Damballah brings, Fanon would argue, is a consequence of a belief system designed to enable survival within an oppressive system, rather than to fight back against that system. It is a sign that the people have not yet started to use violence and fight back. Violence, claims Fanon, “rids the colonised of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude.”

But Damballah does more than merely comfort. In Petro Voudoun - the active and antagonistic form, less a religious system and more an occultist method - his hissing is that which “is heard in the roar of the flames”. Voudoun language is precisely “the language of the dead” (Shelley), and in the Petro system the unintelligibility of this language changes from a comfort into to a strategy. Voudoun itself can be grasped, and turned into a revolutionary method. It was an organising principle in the early days of the Haitian Revolution. Ceremonies were places where more than religious rites were performed, but where news could be exchanged and plans for revolution made. The symbols of Voudoun were no longer simply for comfort, they defined difference from the oppressor and provided the strength and courage necessary for the struggle.The outcome of that struggle depended on the development of communications that are unintelligible to the enemy, and that unintelligibility is not only necessary in terms of revolutionary conspiracy, as Edouard Glissant has pointed out, it was also crucial under slavery for basic day to day survival:

Since speech was forbidden, slaves camouflaged the word under the provocative intensity of the scream. No-one could translate the meaning of what seemed to be nothing but a shout. It was taken to be nothing but the call of a wild animal. This is how dispossessed man organised his speech by weaving it into the apparently meaningless texture of extreme noise [. . .] Creole organises speech as a blast of sound.

Mark McMorris reads Glissant as describing the origin of avant-garde language use in the linguistic survival modes of black history:

. . . . at the very least we recognise in Glissant’s speculations the chaos and bewilderment attendant upon the early demonstrations of Dada and the Surrealists, with their simultaneous poems for multiple speaking voices closing out the audience from discursive meanings; and the genre, in particular, of the sound poem that, including the scream, shout, grunt and testing other possibilities for paralinguistic utterance, manages to suggest alternative modes of communication and communities.

McMorris goes on to admit that Glissant has far more in mind than innovation in poetics: he is talking in survival modes. I would go further than McMorris, though, and claim that the “provocative intensity” of the scream makes avant-garde “alternative modes of communication” trivial and bourgeois. If we can find any analogies in art, they are more likely to be found in the revolutionary poetics I am arguing for in this thesis. Glissant is not suggesting that “extreme noise” is a mere “alternative”: it is a survival tactic that at any moment may be transformed into struggle. This “organised speech” is not so for the purposes of new forms of art, it is political organisation in the interests of a fight to the death that is played out in language as well as everywhere else. Avant-garde poetics are, ultimately, only legitimate, in political terms, if they can push themselves out of art categories and into the fault-lines between poetics and revolution.

Glissant implies that language, for the dispossessed, is a conspiracy and, also, a barricade. Inside its structure of “apparently meaningless noise” is the chance for the development and organisation of meanings that run counter to the official definitions of the reality of property and slave-ownership. When the time comes, official reality will be destroyed by a “blast of sound” - that “blast” being the sound of “apparently meaningless noise” becoming the instant of meaningful social truth, where all social antagonisms are made visible, audible and intelligible, where meaning is expropriated and the definitions that sustain the reality of property are negated. The void of incomprehensibility is filled by the self-consciousness of the dispossessed as antagonists to those who would “possess” them. That is, the rituals of possession in voudoun are transferred into the move for the oppressed peoples to possess their own lives.

For Fanon, before the “texture of extreme noise” can be transformed into expropriated meaning, the dispossessed exist within what Fanon called “atmospheric violence”, which may be expressed in a violent religious ritual, or, indeed, in the secular claustrophobia of The System of Dante’s Hell, where social antagonisms are able to go unnamed but are everywhere apparent. The crucial moment, then, is the irreversible moment of naming, where the “atmosphere” of violence breaks out into actual social convulsion. The dispossessed recognise that their superstitions are metaphoric expressions of social monsters that are all too real. The dispossessed emerge from a position where, say, “zombies [. . . ] are more terrifying than colonists” to a position where the rituals that are used to keep zombies away - taboos on “urinating, spitting or going out in the dark” - are less “terrifying” than the system of laws that keep them subjugated.

But this is not yet a complete negation of superstition: the violence of gods are, as we have seen, used against the oppressors.“The magical, supernatural powers are surprisingly ego boosting”, says Fanon, and the oppressors powers are “infinitely shrunk”.The expression of the transformation of the “meaningless noise” of the dispossessed into all too comprehensible truth has to be accompanied by a deeper acceptance of the “truth” of superstition, as, according to Fanon, the dispossessed know that “madness alone can deliver them from colonial oppression”.The uncovering of the rational kernel within the irrational superstitious system (ie, the transformation of the fixed system into the revolutionary method), will, for Fanon, involve a “bloodbath”, through which “hallucinatory dreams” will, “amid blood and tears give birth to very real and urgent issues”. Systems that tell them what not to do to keep monsters away are transformed into things to do that will rid them of the all too real monsters of colonialism. Taboos to appease zombies become revolutionary tasks: “giving food to the mujahideen [. . .] staging lookouts [. . .] such are the practical tasks the people are asked to undertake in the liberation struggle.

The value of voudoun, then, is that it allows for its own overcoming, and the energy unleashed by its negation is the energy necessary to negate the power of the oppressors in revolution. Thus, in Shepp’s poem, what Maya Deren identifies as the stored historical energy of Damballah becomes the historical materialism of Engels. Engels too, in for example The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, gathers the collected forces of history in order to define the conditions of oppression in the everyday, and to demonstrate that “the various false conceptions [. . .] of spirits, magic forces etc.” all have an “economic basis”.All true, but still, even the clearing away of religious “bunk” depends on the metaphorical existence of those “spirits”, albeit just at the moment, as in Fanon, when they are realising that their semiconscious, spectral being is precisely the result of those “economic forces”. The famous opening sentence of The Communist Manifesto invokes not only the collected material energies of history, but also - metaphorically, of course - implies that the realisation of Communism means that the spirits of the dead will invade the contemporary scene in order to convulse it, negate it, and thus transform it.

It’s difficult, especially in the context of Archie Shepp’s poem, to not see traces of Damballah within the materialist conceptions of Marx and Engels. The metaphor becomes stronger, and weirder, when we consider the first English translation of the Manifesto: in 1850, Helen MacFarlane rendered the opening sentence as a “frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe. We are haunted by a ghost, the ghost of Communism”

The “frightful hobgoblin” seems closer to European folklore, and the “ghost” seems more matter-of-fact, less grandiose, than does the more easily metaphorical “spectre”. What both metaphors have in common, though, is that a fearful and unknown - perhaps even unknowable - force is about to break out in Europe and destroy it. The social convulsion comes when the “hobgoblins”, “ghosts” and “spectres” of folklore become the “primordial and extra-political force” of the proletariat, a term that first appeared in the early 1840s as a necessary naming of a social force that up till then had been invisible within official history. Further, a force whose “anguished cry” had been, as far as the ruling class was concerned, an “inarticulate thunder”, “that might not belong on earth”.Once the peasant “hobgoblins” of the European countryside had been transformed into the industrial proletariat, that “inarticulate thunder” became, as Heinrich Heine pointed out, a “simple and universal language comprehensible to all”.Or, to put it in Baraka’s terms, they are “seeking to answer questions that have been posed in the conquerer’s language [. . .] but ultimately they answer those questions with a language of their own, resistance”.

Here, I have reached the limit of the political efficacy of the poetic image. What I have argued is that the weight of metaphors that enforce silence are seized, in moments of revolution, to become sheer noise. Poetry, like everything else, will break apart at this moment. But that moment could only have been reached by the force implicit in the system of images that poetry had allowed us to grasp in the first place.

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Baraka and Surrealism

In 1979 Baraka published an essay on the poet Aimé Césaire, a key source.  The essay, however, is highly critical. Baraka is dismissive o...