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  • The Message of the Papillons
  • Georges Didi-Huberman (bio)
    Translated by Jordan Lev Greenwald (bio)

To rise up. First off, to raise up one’s fear and cast it off, to throw it far away. Or even to throw it directly in the face of those who hold the power of organizing our fears. This is also to lift up one’s desire. To take it—and with it one’s expansive joy—in order to throw it in the air, in such a way that it disperses through the space that we breathe, the space of others, the space of the public and the political as a whole. There are two images of this—two corollary images—in the praiseworthy and long-censored film by Mikhail Kalatozov, Soy Cuba. These images refer to the popular, and chiefly student, uprising that terminated in 1956 in the streets of Santiago de Cuba and of Havana. The first image (fig. 1) is that of a fireship [un brûlot]: one sees some young students throw Molotov cocktails onto the drive-in movie screen on which the official images of the dictator Fulgencio Batista are projected. In the past, a “fireship” designated a ship equipped with flammable materials or explosives, designed to collide into an enemy ship and set it ablaze. It now refers to subversive political writings, or even to tracts calling for outright revolt.

The other image (fig. 2) is exactly that of such tracts dispersed by the same student revolutionaries. The papillons (butterflies)—as they are often called, because of their size as well as their distinction from “placards,” for example—lift toward the clouds, without one yet [End Page 137]

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Fig. 1.

Movie screen set ablaze, Soy Cuba (1964), dir. Mikhail Kalatozov.

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Fig. 2.

Papillons in flight, Soy Cuba (1964), dir. Mikhail Kalatozov.

[End Page 138]

knowing if their message will get lost in the void of the skies, or indeed if their power of effusive expansion thereby reveals their irrepressible nature. The paper butterflies rise up: one does not know who will receive, here or elsewhere, carried by the wind, their message of uprising. Like a moment of extreme lyricism embedded in the implacable logic of a scene of extreme violence (a scene of police repression on the main stairway of the University of Havana, which compellingly evokes the great massacre of the Battleship Potemkin on the Richelieu steps in Odessa). A moment at once lyrical and fragile: what good are they, these poor papillons calling, as a last resort, for the clouds to revolt, as the young revolutionaries themselves are assassinated just below by the police?

A necessary moment, however: a moment of the in spite of all. The leaflets that one sees here rising up toward the sky—the opposite, for instance of the barrages of propaganda dumped onto Cuba by US Air Force aircraft—would be for the space of politics what fireflies are for a summer night, or what butterflies are for a day full of sunshine. That is to say the trace of a desire that flies, that goes where it will, that insists, that persists, that resists in spite of everything. There is a double meaning of the word tract. It means, on the one hand, a “short treatise”: a literary genre that since the fifteenth century has generated countless pamphlets and booklets discussing matters of politics, morality, or religion. It means, on the other hand (and this is its more recent designation), a simple and small piece of political propaganda spread about from hand to hand. Both cases retain the etymological sense of the Latin substantive tractatus, which signifies the act of treating a subject, of undertaking a deliberation, a discussion, or a sermon; but also—and this above all—the act of touching upon something (or someone) to capture it, to pull it out of its habitual place.

Spinoza produced tracts in both senses of the word: the considerable Tractatus theologico-politicus as well as the modest placard Ultimi barbarorum that he drafted and that he himself wanted to post on the walls of Le Haye...


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