Cosmogonic Surrealism as Decolonizing Thought: Aimé Césaire and Will Alexander

NOTE: This was a paper given at the MLA conference in January 2017 at a panel organized by Jonathan P. Eburne entitled “Afrosurrealism from 6000 BCE to AD 3000”.

“Only as creators can we destroy!” – Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

“Without surrealism I would have been incapable of surviving the abject vicissitudes and racial violence which the white man in America imposed on me every day. Surrealism became the weapon I used to defend myself, and it has been and always will be my own style of life”  – Ted Joans (“Letter to Andre Breton”)

“Depuis Baudelaire et Rimbaud, la fonction essentielle de la poésie n’est plus de créer un objet d’art, au sens où l’entendaient les Parnassiens.

Que cherche plutot le poète?

Non pas à modeler, à ciseler, à fair un joyau.

C’est un monde, un univers qu’il veut créer.”

– Aristide Maugée, “Poesie et Obscurité” in Tropiques (pp. 9-10)

I would like to begin with a definition of the phrase “cosmogonic surrealism”. The phrase is not mine but was used in passing by Nick Nesbitt in his book, Caribbean Critique to distinguish the cosmogonic early work of the Martinican poet and theorist, Aimé Césaire–the furious work of the Notebook, Miraculous Weapons–from the work focused on “literality and topicality”. Barry Maxwell also mentions it in passing in his excellent reading of Will Alexander in the anarchist anthology, No Gods, No Masters, No Peripheries. Neither define it, but I would like to use it to bring together the work of Césaire and the Los Angeles-based poet Will Alexander, born well over a generation apart, but both focused on the wild, incantatory violence of surrealism.

Cosmogonic surrealism is a practice of reality construction concerned with a new dialectical order where the poet’s imaginaries are brought to bear on the technology of language, and thereby activating the reader’s imagination of what new orders are possible. It only slightly modifies the definition of “surrealism” that Robin D.G. Kelley articulates in his text, Freedom Dreams (2000): “an international revolutionary movement concerned with the emancipation of thought” (p. 5). This is the liberation of thought via world-making: dialectical overcoming by writing that is not contemplative but exploratory, that causes an imaginative widening and internal complication of the sensible via language.

What forms of invention are to be found in these writers’ works, both of which have been triangulated by critics as part of a post-surrealist and/or Afro-surrealist tradition? In what sense is their work part of a project of decolonizing thought, that is to say, not only the formation of critical resistance to those mentalities, discourses, and methods that support imperial violence; but also, of course, creating concepts and practices to replace them altogether. Cosmogony here must be understood in the full sense of the term as the original construction of a good order or arrangement: not merely the construction of a new state, law, tradition, but a militant idealism born out of the gravity of utopian thinking; not an originary model that is static or fixed, but becoming in action. Césaire’s miraculous weapons and Alexander’s primeval lightning field create a tropic density of invention. As writers of color concerned with the African diaspora, be it via the concept of negritude (for Césaire) or a kind of Afrocentric panpsychism (for Alexander), they conceive of their poems as instances of an anti-capitalist poetics of knowledge.

One version of the paradox of automatic writing, which I take here to define surrealist practice concerns the relationship between language and consciousness. This is one that Maurice Blanchot outlines clearly, which may be put like this: The practitioner seeks a certain freedom from subjection by letting language take over; yet in letting language take over in this way, the practitioner also frees language from their control. For Blanchot, this is the end of literature. This writing may pursue forms of technique and criticism, and even literary research, but it is not literature. He writes that surrealism “is in search of a kind of existence that is not that of the ‘given’, of things as they are” while also being “in search of an absolute event, in which man manifests himself with all his possibilities”(“Reflections on Surrealism” in The Work of Fire, 92). For Blanchot, at the point of no return and into the abyss, “language no longer has anything to do with the subject” (Ibid., 89).

But this is just one possible way to conclude this paradox. An alternative interpretation would see this not as abandonment or separation but a reshaping of the relationship between language and the subject by creating worlds for the reader to inhabit. To invent is not to reproduce. The continuous enforcement of the given by the police, the creation and maintenance of domestic slave labor in the form of prisons, or the profit-driven control of sociogeny–these are all instances of the sovereignty of the given, of common sense. What’s more, as Breton points out in Communicating Vessels: the entire point of self-abolishment or de-subjectivation would be to better unify oneself with others, not to isolate oneself in the psychodrama of Blanchot’s automatic writer:

“It is necessary that one separate himself from himself, reject and condemn himself, abolish himself to others’ advantage, in order to reconstitute himself in their unity with him.” (Breton, in What Is Surrealism?, ed. Rosemont, p. 68)

The critical reception of Alexander’s work has often linked him to Césaire. Harryette Mullen, Aldon Nielson, and Evie Shockley, among others, have illuminated this connection via not only Breton but perhaps more importantly, Rimbaud. Both poets held the Rimbaud-Breton dyad in high esteeem. Both look to Africa, the concept and geographical location, for a sense of the originary potential in poetry; for Césaire, the initial interest seems to have been driven by his and Suzanne Césaire’s fascination with the work of the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius; for Alexander, the key figure seems to be the Senegalese polymath, Cheikh Ante Diop, who from the late 1940s onward argued for the southern African origins of Egyptian civilization (and by implication Greco-Roman civilization), and whose life-work in response to the whitewashing of euro-asiatic ancient history had at its core a program of decolonization via historical restitution. For both Césaire and Alexander, the complexity of the African diaspora is an ontological architecture for the creation of a poetics of knowledge that must violate epistemic stability. This poetics must always be anarchic.

In his interview with Jacqueline Leiner, Césaire remarks upon his status as a surrealist. He says that he does surrealism like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain does prose. In other words, he’s been doing surrealism his entire life until it was nominated as such. As he says to René Depestre: “I was ready to accept surrealism because I already had advanced on my own, using as my starting points the same authors that had influenced the surrealist poets. […] Surrealism provided me with what I had been confusedly searching for. […] It was a weapon that exploded the French language. It shook up absolutely everything.”

Something similar may be said of Alexander’s view and use of surrealism. In an interview, he writes:

“I understand that surrealism is a great energizer, but it has never been a theoretical or abstract circumference inside of which I was buried. To me, it is an imaginative spark, and so I’ve never been ideological or working with any kind of practical mode in terms of speaking to that. But it is an energy, and I think I have discovered something that is unique and invincible in the realm of its ubiquitous waters.”

(“Alchemical Dada: An Interview with Will Alexander.”  In Singing in Magnetic Hoofbeat: Essays, Prose Texts, Interviews and a Lecture, 1991-2007. Essay Press, 216-245 (227))

Upon discovering Rimbaud, Breton, and Césaire, Alexander writes:

“I was struck by the way the language veered and electrically snaked its way through opacity. It was so different from [the] obsolete language Breton so rightfully condemned in the First Manifesto, the latter being this linear language that consistently appears on the top seller’s list.”

Interview with Sofi ThanhauserEntropy (January 11, 2016)

Alexander’s long poem, “Sri Lankan Loxodrome” comes from the book of the same name published in 2009 and is dedicated to Césaire a year after the latter’s death (“To the spirit Césaire has left us”). A monologic consciousness, “Loxodrome”, en route from Madagascar toward Sri Lanka, continuously folds into a larger cosmic texture of interstellar and spiritual movement. This “I” exists as a “mind in its aurific [“producing gold”] degree | completely incapable of limits | incapable of forming zones of bondage” (p. 24). The narrator’s foe and companion, an “invasive spectre” called Gianini, seems to both haunt and guide the sailor as he flashes through incantations of what he knows and what he does. A series of qualifications undergirds this dialectic of narratorial identity, playing on the zoomorphic, astronomical, and religious toponyms and topography of Africa and India.  The term, loxodromic, also known as a rhumb, refers to a line that crosses every meridian at the same angle. Amid the shifting semantic screens of technical vocabulary, Alexander often intercedes with apostrophe:

you see

I’ve cancelled all the colonies of reason

all its wells

all its right-thinking blood [.](p. 89)

Alexander’s use of the term “loxodrome” is not normative, in the sense that it adjudicates a neutral semantic marker. The title is cosmically ironic, and much of the poem seeks to critique the colonization of oceanic territory, and the colonizing methodologies that inspire and enforce the will of the “right-thinking blood” in their maritime conquest. The epistemic is a locus of violence:

I do not seek to resolve my annulation of drift

plotting my course like a small sequential effigy

in keeping with a rational Loxodrome


I remain incalculable with mixture

with immortality & aggression

never resolving the earth

as boundary

as list

as vocabulary ensconced within habit (69)

The resistance to resolve the spiraling loxodromic course is also a means of avoiding the creation of a target, a static destination. The earth is not a boundary, not only because it is not a limit for thought, but because it cannot be calculated as a sophisticated array of points, reducing terrestrial and astral bodies to markers. It is not surprising to see Alexander send us back to the imbrication of vocabulary and habit, here, for one of the key Nietzschean tenets of surrealist practice is a constructivist approach to language and experience: Only as creators can we destroy!

In a lecture given by Alexander in 2015 to the California College of the Arts, he speaks candidly (he always speaks candidly about his practice) about the disciplinary and oppressive definition given to forms of life by cosmologists when considering extraterrestrial elemental arrangements. He also writes of the vitalist texture of the earth’s creatures, each node of which can be a point of orientation for language to take hold of experience. What better definition of universalism than the absolute equality of every life form when considered under the aegis of a cosmological totality, ever shifting. And in some sense, this is precisely the point made by Césaire in his major reflection on poetics, “Poetry and Knowledge”. He writes:

Around the poem to be made, the precious vortex: the ego, the id, the world. And the most extraordinary contacts: all the pasts, all the futures (the anticyclone builds its plateaux, the amoeba loses its pseudopods, vanished vegetations meet). All the flux, all the rays. The body is no longer deaf or blind. Everything has a right to live. Everything is summoned. Everything awaits. Everything, I say. The individual [end page xlvii] whole churned up by poetic inspiration. And, in a more disturbing way, the cosmic whole as well.” (xlvii – xlviii)