The Martinique Route

Martinique: Snake Charmer
by André Breton, with text and illustrations by André Masson
University of Texas Press, 2008. 117 pages.

One of Franklin Rosemont’s final contributions before his death in 2009 was seeing this book—part of the University of Texas Press Surrealist Revolution series, which he edited—through to print. As Rosemont says in his valuable introduction, “For lack of a translation, it has been overlooked in the United States and the rest of the English speaking world.” Thanks to the efforts of Rosemont and David W. Seaman, the translator, we at long last have this small classic before us.

These writings are products of André Breton’s profound 1941 encounter with the Caribbean world, a result of the necessity of flight from the increasingly threatening political and social atmosphere of Vichy France. Breton and his family were assisted in taking what was called the “Martinique route” by Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee. Fry includes the following harrowing description of a police search of his rented chateau (dubbed Villa Hope Visa by Victor Serge) in his stirring memoir of this time, Surrender on Demand. Breton and his family, along with Serge and several other intellectuals, were residing in the chateau. This passage appears in Chapter IX, “The Marshal Comes to Town.”

“Enter this,” the commissaire said, handing him the drawing.

It was one of the things left over from the previous night’s contest. It contained, among other things, a gallic cock. Beneath it someone had printed the words: “Le terrible crétin de Pétain.”

“Revolutionary propaganda,” the commissaire snorted.

“But I insist,” Breton was saying, “that the word is not Pétain, but putain. It is a comment by a friend on a friend. It does not concern the Marshal.”

“And the cock? The cock is France, isn’t it?” the commissaire shouted.

C’est contestable,” Breton said weakly.

“Revolutionary propaganda, as clear as the nose on your face,” the commissaire said. “Enter it.”

The plainclothesman entered it.

Invraisemblable,” Breton said, returning to his chair with a shrug of resignation.

The outcome of the incident for Fry and his guests was a stay of several days in the hold of a prison ship in the port of Marseille.

Breton and his family obtained exit visas in March. They departed on a steamer, Capitaine Paul Lemerle, the passenger list of which included anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Rosemont notes that Breton and Levi-Strauss struck up a friendship on the voyage and it is the latter whom I believe Breton refers to as a “highly distinguished young scientist” in “Troubled Waters,” his riveting account of the end of the voyage and his experiences of internment and police surveillance on the island.

In his preface, Breton describes his book as reflecting a profound duality, a tension between the opposites of interior and exterior, subjective and objective, that finds expression in the opposites of “lyrical language” and the “language of simple information.” In other words, Breton and his co-thinker André Masson (who arrived on Martinique shortly after the Bretons) produced a deeply dialectical work.

The manifold Surrealist impulses coming from the tropical island are explored in depth in the “Creole Dialogue,” a transcript of a conversation between Breton and Masson. Among the topics of the discussion is the painter Rousseau’s work “Snake Charmer”, which lends its title to the book. The two discuss the nature of creative inspiration in Europe and in the colonial world, contrasting the human world with the natural world that, on Martinique, exceeds by great lengths the achievements of  art. In this context they mention the massive volcanic eruption that took place on the island in 1902 and which was written about by Rosa Luxemburg. [1]

As Rosemont notes in his introduction, the heart of the book is Breton’s essay on Aimé Césaire, “A Great Black Poet.” By sheer chance, an element deeply appreciated by Surrealism, Breton came upon a copy of Tropiques, the literary journal edited by Césaire. Breton at once recognized the importance of the journal’s writings and was introduced to Césaire and his wife, Suzanne. Here we are at the moment of a thoroughgoing reconfirmation of the global essence of Surrealism, encompassing the Black world and anticipating the successful revolts against colonialism that were to initiate themselves even before the end of the war. I say reconfirmation because Martinican students in France had already contributed to Surrealist journals and Breton himself had visited and been greatly influenced by Mexico in 1938. Here we have another example of Breton being far ahead of the existing revolutionary movement (I mean Trotskyism) in his perspectives.

It should be noted that Césaire was to enter the Communist Party after the war (a move that must have deeply disappointed Breton), although he did definitively break with it in 1956, the year of the suppressed revolution in Hungary.

Martinique: Snake Charmer documents a moment of great importance for Breton and Surrealism. It represents, in essence, a time of suffering (“wounded and indignant,” in Breton’s words from the preface) that would lead to the beginnings of a rebirth visible in the pages of Arcane 17 and Ode to Charles Fourier. This book deserves close study.


[1] Luxemburg’s article was translated by David Wolff and was reproduced in News & Letters in 1983. It appears in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader and can also be found in the Luxemburg section of the Marxist Internet Archive.

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