For René Menil, Caribbean Surrealist-Philosopher

by Ralph Dumain

In investigating the role that surrealism played among Caribbean and Latin American intellectuals, I stumbled across a figure that had hitherto eluded my attention.† I had heard of Aime Cesaire, Alejo Carpentier, and others, but the most intriguing figure I discovered, from Martinique, is Rene Menil.† Of the various philosophical and ideological debates of the time, concerning surrealism, Negritude, etc., Menil's commentary, from what I have read of it, impresses me the most.† I was especially intrigued to learn of his engagement with philosophy, in part dealing with the philosophical underpinnings as well as the artistic manifestations of surrealism, and I was especially intrigued by passing references to Hegel.† I know that Hegel was important to Andre Breton as well, though I can't remember a single thing I once read about the subject.† Surrealism in the Martiniquan context was related to Marxism and to anti-colonialism and the cultural assertion of the people against French cultural domination.† Menil was not the only one of the lot to be involved with the Communist Party.

Menil produced one book of essays in his lifetime, Tracees (1981), which has not been translated into English.† Several essays of his can nevertheless be found in translation in the volume Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean, translated by Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski (Verso, 1996).† The editors' introduction summarizes several debates surrounding various figures (not just those represented in the book), and if I have absorbed their bias, so be it.† Having skimmed through the book, I am impressed most of all by Rene Menil, enjoying most of all his wonderful essay on the philosophy of humor.† The editors suggest that one day further essays of his should one day be translated, particularly those on the issue of Negritude.

While I personally am uninterested in Negritude as a subject, the fact that Menil was a philosopher interests me, and I have long been interested in the appropriation of Hegel in the Caribbean, about which I know little beyond C.L.R. James but have been told there is much more. I only wish I knew more of Menil's philosophical background, esp. his engagement with Hegel and Marx and with philosophical issues beyond those I have mentioned.

I doubt I had attempted to read French in the past twenty years, (not that I was any good at it then, either,) but curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to make an effort to get at least a general idea of what Menil wrote beyond what I had read in English. I looked up Tracees. I will pass over those essays already translated in Refusal of the Shadow and restrict myself to those essays in French that caught my fancy.

The very first essay is "Prealable de l'action foudroyante" [Preliminary to Lightning Action] (from Tropiques, 1941).† The footnote suggests a relation to the philosophy of Gaston Bachelard, but I missed any such reference in the article itself.† Instead, I noted reference to Hegel, in connection with the notion of the unity of dream and action.† This reminds me of Breton's doctrine, and also, curiously, of C.L.R. James's quip (see Special Delivery) that the secret of the Hegelian dialectic is the unity of the actual and the potential.

"Psychanalyse de l'histoire" appears to be a numbered series of aphorisms.† There are references to absurdity and Shakespeare (life is a tale told by an idiot), and an obscure reference use of a phrase cognate to "double consciousness" (p. 46), but without any attribution to the notion we know about that comes from Du Bois.

I'll pass over the translated essay on colonial exoticism and another essay on problems of Caribbean culture.† This first section, titled "Elements D'Identite" ends with an essay from 1980, "Mythologies antillaises", which appears to be an attack on black racial mysticism.† I can't remember more except for a mention of Angela Davis's afro (p. 53).

The second section comprises Menil's scathing attacks on the notion of Negritude.† In "Sens et non-sens" Menil attacks not only the usual suspects but a number of European thinkers, both those related to the promulgation of Negritude and those not.† Sartre of course belongs to the former (p. 65).† In the latter group, Bergson is cited as one of many examples of European right-wing irrationalists (p. 71).† Finally, the apostles of Negritude (Senghor chief among them, natch) are condemned as collaborators with imperialism (pp. 74-5).† "Le spectre de Gobineau" links the apostles of Negritude to the racist theories of Gobineau.† There are some derogatory remarks about Sartre and Fanon (pp. 95-6) which I didn't quite follow.

The most interesting essay in this group is "Le passage de la poesie a la philosophie". Though not translated in Refusal of the Shadow, this essay seems to be the basis for views summarized in this book's introduction, i.e. Menil's contrast between Cesaire and Senghor, in which Senghor takes a severe beating.† Menil finds it remarkable that Negritude was poetry before it got turned into a philosophy.† He finds the discourse of Cesaire and Senghor to be of two completely different orders of being.† Cesaire's work is characterized by esprit, humor, and irony.† Lacking any sense of the absurd, Senghor recasts the same expressions with deadly earnestness, becoming an unintentional self-parody, as when he rewrites Descartes to declare "Je sens, je danse, donc je suis!"† (If you've ever read any Afrocentric drivel such as "I am because we are" you will find Menil's sarcasm most delicious.)† While Cesaire is the product of the most advanced cultural and artistic currents, Senghor seems to be the cultural product of Catholic missionaries and reactionary anthropologists.† Not only the poetic style, but the prose and historical sense and system of values of Cesaire is superior to Senghor's leaden metaphysical piffle in every way.† The importance of humor to Menil I will return to later.

Just about all of the next section, "Tracees I", consisting of articles from Legitime Defense and Tropiques, can be found in translation as mentioned above.† "Laissez passer la poesie" may be an exception or not; however, reading about humor, jazz, and Duke Ellington (pp. 114, 115) reminds me of something I read before.† At the end of my summary I will return to the essay that matters most to me.

The section "Tracees II" consists mostly of poems, with a couple of literary prose pieces.

The next section, "Themes et Styles", is a distillation of Menil's literary criticism, none appearing (unless I'm mistaken) in Refusal of the Shadow.† Here there are reviews of Francophone Caribbean literature which include copious references to the history of European literature as well.† Here I'll mostly list the titles: "A propos d'une etude sur la poesie noire", "Le romanesque et le realisme dans 'La Tragedie du roi Christophe'", "Sur le preface de Breton au 'Cahier d'un retour au pays natal'", "Le roman antillais: II. L'activite fonctionelle du style."† Always alert to references to Hegel, I found some (pp. 183, 191, 205).†

I was especially interested in the essay "Le roman antillais: I. Le style".† Any Communist must always look over his shoulder at the Stalinists' attmept to control art. Menil sharply repudiates any sort of cultural philistinism against the avant-garde, referring to same as vulgar materialism.† While affirming the principle of unity of form and content, Menil states, contrary to the practice of the usual suspects, that style does not determine content.† He also emphasizes that literature includes subjectivity as an essential property.

The final section consists of an interview, "Dialogues sur une esthetique a faire ou bien."† There is no footnote indicating the date of this interview, but one gets the impression that the interview occurred closer to the publication of the book than earlier.† The interviewer raises the same sort of questions about Communist Party aesthetic doctrines as I would.† Judging from Menil's response, the Martiniquan Communist Party appears to be much more enlightened on these matters than all others.† Since there is no mention of Menil leaving the party, I assume he was still a member at the time of the interview.† Menil favorably cites Mayakovsky and Marcuse among others in favor of literary subtelty.† He seems to be much more in favor of examining intrinsic literary properties of texts and the concrete historical evolution of literary style and technique rather than adhering to any general doctrines concerning Caribbean or Marxist aesthetics.† Finally, when asked what revolutionary poetry might be, Menil emphasizes language and sentiment, choosing the best means to say what you have to say.† He ends on a quip, stating that this sort of poetry is a continuation of politics by other means.

Now that I'm done summarizing the untranslated material, I'll end by returning to the essay (to be found in translation in Refusal of the Shadow) that matters most to me: "Humour: Introduction to 1945" (originally "L'humour: introduction a 1945").† I've mentioned more than once the importance of humor to Menil; here he states his philosophy of humor.† This is my inspiration.† Decades ago Menil enunciated ideas I've been thinking to myself for (fewer) years.† He brilliantly stresses the epistemological significance of humor.† He explains how humor expresses our highest standards in contast with our paltry condition, how it affirms our highest ideals while releasing us from the weight of finitude upon our spirits, how it negates mundane actuality by the power of imagination.† Sixty years ago, humor was an important part of the spiritual and cultural resistance against fascism.† I am convinced it is the only true art of our time; only humor can adequately express the world aesthetically and reflectively in which we live today.

24 May & 2 July 1998, edited & uploaded 30 June 2001


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