A Sur­re­al­ist in the Gaspésie

Canadian Art - - Contents - By Jonah Sam­son

In 1944, An­dré Bre­ton re­treated to Que­bec to write his wartime man­i­festo, Ar­canum 17 by Jonah Sam­son

Percé Rock, the mas­sive lime­stone for­ma­tion off the tip of the Gaspé Penin­sula in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, has ex­isted for 375 mil­lion years, and in 15,000 years it will have com­pletely col­lapsed into the sea. Water that ac­cu­mu­lates in the crevices of the rock freezes each win­ter, caus­ing hun­dreds of tons of stone to de­tach an­nu­ally, and the rhyth­mic lash of the tides is a con­stant source of ero­sion. The im­per­ma­nence of some­thing so im­pos­ing is un­nerv­ing. Its ex­is­tence has spanned count­less life­times, and yet its longevity is not lim­it­less.

It was this de­struc­tive process that in­spired French Sur­re­al­ist An­dré Bre­ton to write Ar­canum 17, his meditation on love, war and res­ur­rec­tion, dur­ing a jour­ney to Gaspé in 1944. Bre­ton, his wife and their daugh­ter left France in 1941 due to the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion, and moved to New York for the du­ra­tion of the Sec­ond World War. Al­though Bre­ton had es­caped the atroc­i­ties of Europe, he was per­son­ally dev­as­tated when his wife sub­se­quently left him and took their only child. Sev­eral years later, while still in the United States, Bre­ton fell in love again, with a woman who had also a suf­fered ter­ri­ble per­sonal loss af­ter her only daugh­ter had drowned. In their bur­geon­ing re­la­tion­ship, each of them found the op­ti­mism to re­build their shat­tered lives. It was the flour­ish of love born out of ter­ri­ble loss that Bre­ton pro­jected upon the shift­ing po­lit­i­cal land­scape of France. “One must go to the depths of hu­man sor­row, dis­cover its strange ca­pac­i­ties,” he wrote in Ar­canum 17, “in order to salute the sim­i­larly lim­it­less gift that makes life worth liv­ing.” Just as he had been re­newed by love, Bre­ton be­lieved the oc­cu­pa­tion of France by the Ger­mans would en­er­gize the Re­sis­tance Move­ment to re­gain France’s lib­erty. In a world fight­ing off the dark bur­den of war, he be­lieved that re­bel­lion could be at­tained through po­etry, lib­erty and love. While in Gaspé dur­ing the fall of 1944, Bre­ton po­et­i­cally viewed the slow-mo­tion crum­bling of Percé Rock as the phys­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of hope in those dark times. It be­came a pow­er­ful sym­bol of the con­stant changes he ob­served in na­ture, and of meta­mor­pho­sis it­self. “All things, must, on the out­side, die, but a power that is not at all su­per­nat­u­ral makes death it­self the ba­sis for re­newal,” he wrote. In the flap of a butterfly’s wings, in the bloom of the rose af­ter win­ter, Bre­ton found ev­i­dence of res­ur­rec­tion. In Ar­canum 17, Bre­ton de­scribes na­ture’s lim­it­less abil­ity to trans­form, and ac­counts of Percé Rock are in­ter­wo­ven with folk tales, mythol­ogy and the oc­cult.

There is the tale of Melusina, the French spirit who would ap­pear as a woman, but was cursed to trans­form each week into a fig­ure that was half-woman, half–water ser­pent. And the story of Osiris, the Egyp­tian god of the dead, who was res­ur­rected by his wife, Isis. And of course the Tarot: the book’s ti­tle, Ar­canum 17, takes its name from the 17th card of the Tarot’s Ma­jor Ar­cana, also known as The Star. Tra­di­tion­ally, this card de­picts a fe­male fig­ure kneel­ing by a small pool of water with two urns, the con­tents of which she pours into the water and onto the land to nour­ish the earth and con­tinue the cy­cle of life. It is one of the most pos­i­tive cards in the Tarot deck, and is a sym­bol of faith in the fu­ture. For Bre­ton, the sto­ries of Melusina, Isis and The Star rep­re­sented the keys to trans­form­ing the world. Th­ese fe­male fig­ures demon­strated that, in the dark­est of times, there is al­ways a light, and that this light is un­ques­tion­ably fem­i­nine. It was clear to him that only a fem­i­nine world­view could rem­edy the de­struc­tive, mas­cu­line pow­ers that had brought Earth to a place of such dark­ness.

“The time has come to value the ideas of woman at the ex­pense of those of man, whose bank­ruptcy is com­ing to pass fairly tu­mul­tuously to­day. It is artists, in par­tic­u­lar, who must take the re­spon­si­bil­ity, if only to protest against this scan­dalous state of af­fairs, to max­i­mize the im­por­tance of ev­ery­thing that stands out in the fem­i­nine world view in con­trast to the mas­cu­line, to build only on woman’s re­sources,” Bre­ton wrote in Ar­canum 17. “Those of us in the arts must pro­nounce our­selves un­equiv­o­cally against man and for woman, bring man down from a po­si­tion of power which, it has been suf­fi­ciently demon­strated, he has mis­used, re­store this power to the hands of woman.”

Writ­ing this while on the Gaspé Penin­sula (a name that was likely de­rived from the Mi’kmaq word mean­ing “land’s end”), Bre­ton, one could imag­ine, was bur­dened by the ag­gres­sive his­tory of the place it­self. It was here in 1534 that Jac­ques Cartier first planted a cross to claim the land for the king of France, de­spite the pres­ence of the Indige­nous peo­ples al­ready on it—a mo­ment that marked the be­gin­ning of Euro­pean vi­o­lence in the re­gion. This trou­bling his­tory and the de­struc­tion wrought dur­ing the Sec­ond World War caused Bre­ton to pro­claim that artists had an obli­ga­tion to as­sist in the trans­fer of power of men to women. This call was rad­i­cal: not a dec­la­ra­tion for the equal rights of women, but rather an as­ser­tion of the su­pe­ri­or­ity of woman over man. Bre­ton be­lieved that women were closer to na­ture, and there­fore fem­i­nine values pro­vided the nat­u­ral forces that were nec­es­sary to bring peace and har­mony to the planet. Bre­ton’s cou­pling of fem­i­nin­ity with na­ture would be chal­lenged 30 years later by Sherry Ort­ner who wrote, “Woman is not ‘in re­al­ity’ any closer to (or fur­ther from) na­ture than man—both have con­scious­ness, both are mor­tal.” So per­haps our hope lies not in the di­ver­gence of mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine, but rather in the ex­pan­sion of our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness. “Hu­man­ity’s as­pi­ra­tions for lib­erty must al­ways be given the power to recre­ate them­selves end­lessly,” Bre­ton wrote. “That’s why it must be thought of not as a state but as a liv­ing force bring­ing about con­tin­ual progress.” ■

In 1944, while Cana­dian troops stormed the beaches of Nor­mandy, An­dré Bre­ton re­treated to the Gaspé Penin­sula, where the French Sur­re­al­ist would write Ar­canum 17— his brac­ing meditation on love, war, re­sis­tance and res­ur­rec­tion

“Surf at Percé Rock” post­card, n.d. H.V. HEN­DER­SON, WEST BATHURST, NEW BRUNSWICK

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