Jacqueline Lamba docks in Martinique in 1941. Peggy Guggenheim has paid her fare from Marseilles. Jacqueline is fleeing World War II with her husband, André Breton, and their daughter, Aube. They will stay in Martinique for three weeks, ostensibly at the Lazaret internment camp, a former leper colony, on their way to America. Where better to spread the Surrealist creed than the US, its citizens fixated on child actress Shirley Temple and Charles Lindbergh’s advice to Congress on Hitler? André, the pope of Surrealism, will later write propaganda for the US government-funded radio program Voice of America.
Jacqueline is swimming nude in a burlesque aquatics show when she first meets André. Her brother has urged her to read his work. Cafe Cyrano at Place Blanche, his haunt, is on her way to the pool. She takes a table and waits, hard at work with a pen. Sketching or writing? She has already published art in magazines. André has another way of describing their first meeting: “wild chance.” He immortalizes it in L’amour fou (Mad Love). He has already written Nadja, about his ten-day affair with (and rejection of) Léona Camille Ghislaine Delcourt, who predicts the future and believes in intuition and miracle. After their affair, Delcourt is arrested and incarcerated as a madwoman for the rest of her life.
A number of the refugees, including André and his family, are released from the internment camp because the Fort-de-France shopkeepers say they’re being deprived of a source of income. Local students who promise to show André around turn out to be working for the police.
Aube needs a ribbon. André visits a haberdashery and instead buys a copy of the publication Tropiques. He is stunned by its contents. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he writes, “but what was being said here was what had to be said, not only as well as it could be said but as loudly as it could be.” This is the first issue of the literary magazine, which insists that Surrealism illuminates the colonial situation. Its fourteen issues are edited primarily by Suzanne Roussy Césaire (“ingenuous flames you who lick a rare heart”) and her husband Aimé Césaire (“a human cauldron heated to the boiling point”), and become internationally influential. André declares that Tropiques spells out the great hope for European exhaustion—not Surrealism, but Négritude.
Surrealism: a twentieth-century avant-garde movement in art and literature that seeks to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, founded by André on the principles of poetry, freedom, and love. André, however, fails miserably at most of his love affairs, writes more manifestos and prose than poetry, and banishes those who deviate from those manifestos.
Négritude: a literary and ideological movement that rejects European colonization, finds pride in African ancestry, embraces Surrealism as a way to avoid mimesis, and restores the world to a more holistic sense of reality. It is begun by French intellectuals Leopold Senghor, eventually the first president of independent Senegal, the poet/politician Léon Damas, and Aimé Césaire, who names the movement in 1935. Senghor publishes its first theoretical article, “What a Black Man Contributes,” more then ten years after Martinican philosopher Jane Nardal elucidates all its significant precepts in her essay “Black Internationalism.” She is not mentioned in his piece.
Jacqueline Lamba’s significant contributions to Surrealism are forgotten, Suzanne Césaire’s important writing on Négritude buried. Could it be because they are the wives of famous men? Or just because they are women?
For the Césaires, educated in France, Négritude is far more than an antidote to European exhaustion: it is hope for all humanity. “Our surrealism will enable us to finally transcend the sordid antinomies of the present: whites/Blacks, Europeans/Africans, civilized/savages—at last rediscovering the magic power of the mahoulis, drawn directly from living sources. Colonial idiocy will be purified in the welder’s blue flame,” writes Suzanne. She composes seven seminal essays on Négritude for the magazine.
Aimé begins his famous book-length poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Return to My Native Land), “a cry of rebellion and a celebration of black identity,” in 1936, the same year he meets Suzanne. In the book “words clash and flare, to create tantalizing moments of revelation, paradoxically offering meaning while undermining coherence,” writes critic Roger Cardinal. Studying in Paris, the Césaires collaborate on the magazine Etudiant Noir (Black Student), working alongside Senghor. Together they go to hear Duke Ellington, but Aimé can’t dance.
you are the morning that swoops down on the lamp a night stone
between its teeth
you are the passage of seabirds…
—Aimé Césaire 1948
“Poets feel capsized in their head,” Suzanne writes in 1945, the year Aimé goes into politics. He becomes deputy to the French Assembly and, later, leader of his own political party, and then mayor of Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique. Although often ill, she teaches and cares for their six children while he shuttles between Paris and Martinique.
The shopkeeper who sold André Tropiques puts him in touch with the Césaires. They meet the next day and go for a walk in the forest.
“…the tangle of these trees that specialize in acrobatics, boost each other into the clouds, leap over cliffs and cut moaning arches over sweet sorceresses under suction cups of sticky flowers which are acetylene lamps—are lamps to light private places in the heart’s shadows, maternal crypts that open and close over our lives,” writes André.
Writes Suzanne: “…suddenly the blues of the Haitian mountains, of the Martinican bays, turn dull, suddenly the most blazing reds go pale, and the sun is no longer a crystal play of light, and if the public squares have chosen the laceworks of Jerusalem thorn as luxury fans against the fieriness of the sky, if the flowers have known how to find just the right colors to leave one dumbstruck, if the tree-like ferns have secreted golden saps for their white crooks, rolled-up like a sex organ, if my Antilles are so beautiful, it is then because, on that day, the weather is most certainly too blindingly bright and beautiful to see clearly.”
Martinican tropical rain forests are as lush as those only imagined by Henri Rousseau, the artist most championed by the Surrealists, a painter who never saw a rain forest. A Martinican forest suggests Eden, with furry pink-toed tarantulas, silent blue-headed hummingbirds and extinct parrots, a profusion of vines and mahogany, blue crab, bamboo, bird-of-paradise, and “bamboo enveloped in smoky vapors.”
After their walk in the forest, André writes of Suzanne’s beauty: “more dazzling than in a face of white ash and ambers.” The beautiful found object. She could have been another mask André picked up at the market.
Jacqueline, by her own estimation, is too beautiful. “My wife with hair of wood burning fire/with thoughts lightning strokes of heat…with eyes at water level, air, earth and fire level,” writes André. At her wedding, she poses nude with three men: André, Giacometti, and Eluard. The photographer is Man Ray. She is gorgeous in a photo with Trotsky, André, and Diego Rivera in 1938; Frida Kahlo has her arm around Jacqueline the same year; and that’s her smoking with Sartre in 1943. Picasso paints her with Dora Maar, holding ice cream, leaning on a bike: “Night Fishing at Antibes,” just before the beach turns to carnage. Simone de Beauvoir describes Jacqueline with “shell pendants in her ears, eyelashes painted with mascara, bracelets clashing as she waved her hands to show off those long, alluring fingernails.” André writes: “This woman was scandalously beautiful.”
She works out on a trapeze in the Villa Air-Bel, where they hide from the police, waiting with Claude Levi-Strauss and other prominent artists and intellectuals for an escape boat. The villa hideaway is the undercover work of the American journalist Varian Fry, financed by the crazy heiress Mary Jayne Gold. At Air-Bel, Jacqueline is happy, “in other words, selfish,” she writes in a letter. She is photographed hanging upside down in a tree outside the villa. To pass the anxiety-ridden days, the artists invent the collaborative poetry game “exquisite corpse” and design a Surrealist deck of cards.
It is the last boat out of France.
Unwanted as a child, Jacqueline is treated like a boy by her parents. They call her “he” and “Jacko” until she reaches adolescence. Her early paintings express her gender dysphoria. André, according to biographer Mary Ann Caws, “never wanted to be seen without an erection.” He is high voiced and always seems to waddle. As a young boy in Brittany, he becomes fascinated with forests. His grandfather is a roof thatcher.
The forest in Martinique is Absalon, Hebrew for “the father of peace,” a wild place where man might start over. “The meeting was extraordinary,” writes Aimé. He feels the contact sped up the development of Négritude. André believes it was a turning point in Surrealism, and encourages Aimé to appropriate it, to “use surrealism as a weapon.”
The authorities think of Tropiques as a harmless critique of music and art, a bit of folklore and poetry, innocuous little clumps of words.
Were you the tiny prey hunted down, forced
By old hunters hairy, obscene and White,
the favorite quarry, cajoled, then beaten,
The exciting doll soon to be broken
—Suzanne Césaire, Tropique, no. 4, January 1942
As a university student in the 1930s, Suzanne mingles with the crowd at a salon put on by the Nardal sisters, Paulette and Jane, the first black women to attend the Sorbonne. They are translating the work of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Paulette supports Aimé’s work, and Aimé, in turn, disparages her writing about the double standards between women and men. She also publishes a magazine but avoids anything overtly political. Later, when Jane tries to go into politics, someone throws a torch through the window of the family home to protest, burning all of Paulette’s papers.
What is France to these black bourgeois islanders, these people of the Caribbean educated in Paris? A place to extract the ore of French civilization and melt it down to their own specifications. A place far enough away that they can see themselves and their place in the world clearly, where liberté has been fought for and won.
“When liberty itself is threatened throughout the world, Surrealism (which has not ceased for a moment to remain resolutely in the service of the greatest emancipation of mankind) can be summed up with a single magic word: liberty,” writes Suzanne.
Suzanne is born in the same village as Josephine, wife of Napoleon. Josephine’s statue stands in the middle of Fort-de-France, her breasts spilling out. André admires this. A century earlier, Napoleon reinstated slavery after ten years of freedom, and Josephine did not (could not?) prevent him. Imagine the anger of the islanders captured as slaves a second time, everything taken away all over again. Josephine’s statue is later decapitated and swathed in red paint.
Aimé guides the travelers through the forest. They come to a vista: waterfalls, palms studded with coconuts, a spider web holding dew, and on the rocks, the petroglyphs of an earlier people. They walk beside the volcano Pelée, which killed thirty thousand people sixty years earlier, they explore the new lava path that suggests violent freedoms poised for expulsion.
Jacqueline, too, writes a manifesto. “The line does not exist, it is already form. Shadow does not exist, it is already light.” The full text has been lost. She shows in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris, but neither her name nor her works are listed in the catalogue. This happens many times during her marriage to André.
“Your eyeball is my eyeball,” writes Frida Kahlo to Jacqueline after their first affair, before they take it up again in Paris years later. Frida finds André insufferable, but she is infatuated with Jacqueline. “The color of your skin, your eyes and your hair changes with the wind of Mexico.” Chatting in English together in Mexico City, they enjoy annoying Trotsky with their smoking. He and André are writing yet another manifesto, “Towards a Free Revolutionary Art.” It is 1938. Trotsky flirts seriously with Jacqueline while she and André nearly bankrupt Diego Rivera as houseguests.
Jacqueline bears André’s only child. She separates from him soon after their walk in the forest, “in order to paint.” A year later, she has her first solo show.
“The express aim of surrealism is the liberation of man,” writes André. He mails a postcard from Martinique illustrated with a tired-looking female bearer—une porteuse—wearing a necklace of Brussels sprouts.
“Here life lights up in a vegetal fire,” writes Suzanne.
Whom do they send to the lieutenant’s office to beg for paper to print Tropiques on? Beautiful Suzanne, “without her ever having deigned to seduce the jailers,” Aimé notes. And when the lieutenant finally figures out that they are not publishing the magazine he’d believed they were, and accuses them of being ingrates and traitors, who writes the rebuff? “If [we] were ingrates and traitors, then [we] were Zolas!” writes Suzanne. The magazine is not published to “poison minds, to sow hatred, to destroy morals.” When the lieutenant proclaims, “France has engaged in a politics of racial equality that it has not just proclaimed but which it has also more sweepingly put into practice than any other country,” she answers: “Racists, yes. Racism like that of Toussaint Louverture, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes—against the racism like that of Drumont and Hitler. As for the rest, expect from us neither a plea, nor vain recriminations, not even debate. We do not speak the same language.”
It is also in 1941 that Suzanne skips the school’s morning “La Marsellaise” in protest of the tyranny of the Vichy state. She is repeatedly threatened with the loss of her job. An Admiral Robert replaces Martinique’s black mayors with white ones, and uses hundreds of French soldiers to impose fascist purges, internments, and deportations to a Guyanese penal colony. Five thousand Martinican men sail to Dominica to escape. “Wherever we look, the shadow is advancing,” writes Suzanne in Tropiques.
Jacqueline and Robert Matta discuss art and light. He paints disasters and death, she paints birth and regeneration through light. “America is truly the Christmas tree of the world,” she writes when she and André finally arrive in the States. She has to translate for him; he refuses to learn English. When Matta sees her work there, he accuses her of copying him. She destroys the paintings.
Before André boards the boat to Martinique, he witnesses the arrests, exile, torture, and murder of fellow Surrealists. He himself is arrested and held for four days, accused of being a degenerate and ultimately exiled from France. A few years after his visit to Martinique, he lectures in Haiti, going on about Surrealism and the dream state and man’s potential on an island where, as he puts it, the men are paid less than a cent for a day’s work and the children are fishing tadpoles out of the sewers for their meals. A newspaper reports on the speech extensively, prompting Haitian students to riot and the populace to revolt until the American-backed dictator, Élie Lescot, flees.
Why should poetry, of all things, be important in politics? It communicates our wishes, our dreams, and allows us to connect one image with another, to imagine the unimaginable: freedom. “The imaginary is what tends to become real,” writes André.
The invitation to Jacqueline’s 1944 show reads: “Any expression in art not stemming from Liberty and Love is false.”
“If you leave me, I will destroy you,” writes André. Jacqueline visits Frida in 1944 for seven months. Frida repaints “The Bride that Becomes Enlightened When She Sees Life Open,” the work she began the year the two women met. She adds a doll who resembles Jacqueline, and the fruit in the work is cut open to suggest sex. “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman,” writes Simone de Beauvoir.
When Jacqueline returns to France, André destroys all her work. They divorce the next year. During the legal proceedings in Reno, he speaks an almost incoherent English, having relied on her to communicate. The next day he marries a third time, to a Chilean woman he spots in the cafe across from his New York apartment, bereaved by the drowning of her eleven-year-old daughter. They embark on a long tour of the Southwest to buy Hopi dolls.
At parties in New York, Jacqueline wears eighteenth-century gowns rented from theatrical houses. She marries David Hare, a wealthy Surrealist sculptor. Their meeting is also an instance of love at first sight. He provides the money for André’s New York Surrealist magazine VVV, which contains copies of her paintings, signed first Jacqueline André, then, at last, Jacqueline Lamba.
She stops making Surrealist paintings altogether in 1947. When she dies, she believes she will “not be recognized as an artist because she was a woman, had been married to André Breton, had stopped painting Surrealism, and had a difficult personality.”
“My ibis mummy,” writes André of Jacqueline.
Seventeen Surrealists are photographed at Pierre Matisse’s apartment in New York. It is 1945. Among the guests are Tanguy, Matta, André, and Duchamp. The seven women are seated, Suzanne beside André’s third wife, Elisa André, who will be noted for her Surrealist boxes, little trapped chambers of dream.
“[Jacqueline] was a painter of considerable ability, but André never mentioned her work,” says Eileen Agar, a British Surrealist.
André publishes Martinique: Snake Charmer in 1948; some consider it his best book. André Masson illustrates it. He too took the boat and walked through the forest. Later, the two sit across from each other and riff and their conversation becomes a chapter in the book. Masson’s illustrations do not much evoke the forest but the psycho-erotic in drawings of parts of women coming out of the foliage. Jacques Lacan, the famous psychoanalyst fascinated by Surrealism, is his brother-in-law.
“An appointment to which we are always called with a real that eludes us,” writes Lacan about psychoanalysis. When Jacqueline first meets André on the evening of May 28, 1934, they take a long walk. He imagines the Tour Saint-Jacques as a swaying sunflower, employing the same image he used in his sunflower poem, “Tournesol,” eleven years earlier. The recurring image is evidence, for him, that Jacqueline is the beautiful woman he has been dreaming of for years. In contrast, she imagines Tour Saint-Jacques as “the world’s greatest monument to the hidden.”
“…in such moments, the unconscious and the conscious, in you and in me, existed in complete duality near each other, keeping each other in a total ignorance and yet communicating at will by a single all-powerful thread which was the exchanged glance between us,” writes André in L’amour fou. It is not Jacqueline he is addressing, the raison d’etre for the book, the woman who sparked this mad love, but his daughter.
Suzanne writes that “far from contradicting, diminishing, or diverting our revolutionary feeling for life, surrealism shored it up. It nourished in us an impatient strength, endlessly sustaining this massive army of negations.” She separates from Aimé in 1963, and travels to Paris. Simone Weil, who teaches beside Suzanne, despises Surrealism. It is “a harbinger of barbarian and cultural decline.”
Suzanne loves to sing despite her children’s mockery; she uses a cigarette holder for her Royal Navy cigarettes; she is acerbic and ironic; she has “electric hair she loved to undo to amuse us,” according to her daughter, who remembers her saying, “Your generation will be the women who choose.” After Suzanne settles in Paris, she becomes known as the “black panther,” defender of women.
“One can only guess the easy lovemaking of fish,” Suzanne writes. “They make the water move and wink amicably for the aircraft’s porthole. Our islands seen from above, take on their true dimension as seashells. And as for the hummingbird-women, tropical flower-women, the women of four races and dozens of bloodlines, they are there no longer. Neither the heliconia, nor the frangipani, nor the flame tree, nor the palm trees in the moonlight, nor the sunsets unlike any other in the world…. Yet they are there.”
Aimé sees the Caribbean as mute and sterile. Suzanne sees the Caribbean as a rich site of upheaval, a mingling of repression and possibility. “In her last essay ‘The Great Camouflage,’ [she] engages anthropology, esthetics, surrealism, history, and poetry as she grapples with questions of power and deception, self-deception, the economic slipknot of a post-slavery debt system, identity and inauthenticity, bad faith, psychological and affective aberration, and cultural zombification,” writes the critic Daniel Maximin. She composes her seven essays for Négritude, and the rest is up to the world.
“Surrealism,” writes Suzanne, “gave us back some of our possibilities.”
They all go into the forest.
In 1952 Suzanne produces “The Dawn of Freedom,” a play she adapts from Youma, The Story of a West Indian Slave, a Lafcadio Hearn novel about the 1848 black revolt in Martinique that took place two months after the French declared the slaves free, but did not free them. Her text, of course, has been lost.
She is still referred to as an “erstwhile essayist.”
Influenced by a secondary-school teacher, Aimé imagines the world as a forest, with trees of different woods growing together in harmony. As mayor of Fort-de-France, he celebrates the centennial of the French emancipation in 1948, instead of the slaves’ self-liberation. Four years later, his student, the revolutionist Frantz Fanon, publishes Black Skin, White Masks.
“To hell with hibiscus, frangipani and bougainvillea,” Suzanne writes. She says the Martinicans imitate the French by struggling for assimilation, but the worst of it is that they don’t know what they’re imitating. She insists that they steal the language of their oppressors and their theoretical tools. “A literature of sugar and vanilla…literary tourism. The Blue Guide. Poetry? Not a bit of it.”
Why isn’t her play published? Aimé has such a strong publishing presence, both on the islands and abroad. “In a very small voice, the great man told me that at the time, it was very difficult, for a woman, to be published,” says an interviewer of his. Aimé doesn’t have any memory of “The Dawn of Freedom” itself, and how it differed from the original novel. Could the problem be political? Hearn’s novel concerns a slave who dies protecting her white charge during the forgotten Martinican rebellion, an inconvenient narrative during the centennial celebration of France’s largesse.
Or is it merely a smothering of female accomplishment? Suzanne writes nothing more.
The devil lurks in the forest; there’s the manchineel, a tree whose fruit, bark, and leaves poison anyone standing under it. The extremely venomous fer-de-lance. The tree and the snake.
“Invent a new literature,” writes Suzanne in “The Great Camouflage,” her great final essay in Tropiques. “It is not all about a backwards return, a resurrection of an African past that we have learned to know and respect. On the contrary, it is about the mobilization of every living strength brought together upon this earth where race is the result of the most unremitting intermixing: it is about becoming conscious of the incredible store of varied energies until now locked up within us. We must now deploy them to the maximum without deviation, without falsification. Too bad for those who consider us mere dreamers.”
Suzanne sells Communist newspapers on Sundays in Paris. She dies in 1966, at fifty-one, of brain cancer, leaving behind her six children. The daughter of Aimé’s mistress idolizes her.
“It is a black man who is the one guiding us today into the unexplored, seeming to play as he goes, throwing ignition switches that lead us forward from spark to spark,” writes André.
Paulette Nardal writes: “Senghor and Césaire took over the ideas we have expressed and brandished them with much more sparks, we were only women! We marked tracks for men.” Senghor awards her Senegal’s highest honor, the Commander of the National Order of the Republic, but doesn’t acknowledge her influence. Only after her death in 1985 does Aimé pay tribute to Paulette by naming a square for her in Fort-de-France.
Close to death in 2005, Aimé gives a talk on the origins of Négritude, and he does not mention the Nardal sisters at all; or Nancy Cunard, the white woman who published the groundbreaking Negro Anthology in 1934; or his wife.
In the forest: insect noise. Layer on layer of green. Only variations in texture.
Although Hare has many girlfriends, takes too many drugs, and divorces Jacqueline, he supports her for four decades. “She was a very beautiful animal,” says Jacqueline’s friend, Ethel Baziotes. “She was contentious, demanding, hard on others, expecting them to live up to her expectations.” Eventually ill health confines Jacqueline to Paris, where she feels claustrophobic. She escapes by painting big pictures of clouds, then, at the end of her life, dark paintings. “Men win because they are men,” Jacqueline writes. Her tombstone is inscribed with André’s words: “the night of the sunflower.”
He writes: “Perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I ‘haunt.’”
Left among Aimé’s last works:
Through the cicatricial opening-closing games of the sky
I can see her fluttering her eyelids
Just to let me know that she understands my signals
Which are moreover in distress from very old sun-falls of light
Hers I truly believe to be the only one capable of capturing
The airport in Fort-de-France is named for Aimé; his office is a museum. A Fort-de-France school is named for Suzanne.
By 2006, only eight out of four thousand cruise-ship tourists will walk in the forest.
“The hate of the marvelous which rages in certain men, this absurdity beneath which they try to bury it,” writes André.
“Surrealism is a permanent readiness for the Marvelous,” writes Suzanne.