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  • Le Je de l'autre:Surrealist Ethnographers and the Francophone Caribbean
  • J. Michael Dash

Il y a ainsi deux secteurs contemporains dans la découverte du monde par les écrivains français: l'un ethnographique, l'autre littéraire. Dans chacun de ces secteurs on conçoit enfin l'Outre-Occident comme un Autre dont il serait néfaste, pour l'observateur ou le voyageur eux-mêmes, de mésestimer ou vouloir détruire les valeurs.

Edouard Glissant, "Michel Leiris ethnographe"1

Le surréalisme s'est évanoui? C'est qu'il n'est plus ici ou là: il est partout. C'est un fantôme, une brillante hantise. À son tour, métamorphose méritée, il est devenu surréel."2 Maurice Blanchot's comment on the global dissemination of surrealism in La Part du feu (1949) highlights the often-neglected fact that while Surrealism took shape in Europe in the aftermath of World War I, its impact was also deeply felt in non-European countries. It is arguably in the Caribbean and South America that Surrealism produced a long and sustained dialogue on the question of the relationship between Europe and its colonial others. In the Caribbean in particular, this relationship goes back to 1932 and the journal Légitime Défense started by René Ménil and Jules Monnerot. Later a unique series of encounters take place in the 1940s that constitute a much neglected but crucial moment in the global spread of Surrealist practices.

While the impact of the Surrealist intellectuals' exile in the U.S. is well documented, one would be hard put to find, even in French, a thoroughgoing examination of this period of interaction between a French literary avant-garde and Caribbean writers. Annie Cohen-Solal's Un jour ils auront des peintres, Dickran Tashjian's A Boatload of Madmen, Martica Sawin's Surrealism in Exile, Jeffrey Mehlman's Émigré New York or most recently Emmanuelle Loyer's Paris à New York concentrate on the displacement of intellectual life from Paris to New York and the consequent creation of an American avant-garde.3 When the Surrealists' travel through the Caribbean is mentioned, the tendency is to concentrate exclusively on André Breton and generally ignore the passage of Surrealist dissidents such as Pierre Mabille, Michel Leiris, and Alfred Métraux, who inaugurated a form of writing that Glissant in 1956 calls a welcome combination of literature and ethnography. For instance, Milan Kundera's 1991 essay on Surrealism in the Caribbean, "The Umbrella, the Night World and the Lonely Moon," traces a simple trajectory [End Page 84] which links all Francophone Caribbean writing from Aimé Césaire to Patrick Chamoiseau, to André Breton's 1941 visit to Martinique and 1945 stop in Haiti.4 As Edward Said pointed out, such a linear concept of "traveling theories" is erroneous. As an idea circulates and is transplanted elsewhere, it "is to some extent transformed by its new uses, its new position in a new time and place."5

The work that comes closest to documenting the new kind of literary ethnography that evolved in the Caribbean in the 1940s is James Clifford's The Predicament of Culture. Because of Clifford's interest in cosmopolitan modernity he is drawn to the way in which the modern ethnographic text is problematized by a writer ethnographer such as Michel Leiris. Clifford goes so far as to project the "heteroglot" and "hybrid world" of the Caribbean as exemplary of modern displaced identities. Indeed, he yields to a triumphant universalism in declaring "We are all Caribbeans now."6 Though he might have overstated the triumph of global modernity, Clifford is unique in exploring the way in which encounters in "l'Outre-Occident," to use Glissant's term, would complicate and destabilize the idea of otherness and cultural distinctiveness which was the raison d'être of conventional ethnography. The ambiguity of their Caribbean experiences, in Clifford's view, allowed members of a displaced avant-garde to perceive the inventiveness of new creolized cultures and not to lament romantically the irretrievable loss of authentic otherness to global modernity. He makes a difference between Lévi-Strauss's position of defending cultural distinctiveness in...


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