In the House of Paul-Émile Borduas
Cover of the Refus global manifesto.
Inner cover of the Refus global manifesto.
We are the offspring of modest French-Canadian families, working-class or petit bourgeois, French and Catholic from the day we set foot on these shores, steadfast out of resistance to the conqueror, out of stubborn attachment to the past, out of sentimental pleasure and pride, and other drives.
We are a small and humble people clutching the robes of priests who've become sole guardians of faith, knowledge, truth and our national heritage; and we have been shielded from the perilous evolution of thought going on all around us, by well intentioned but misguided educators who distorted the great facts of history whenever they found it impractical to keep us totally ignorant.
As early as 1760, this colony was cast behind slick walls of fear (the normal refuge of defeated peoples) and abandoned there, for the first time. Our leaders sailed away, or sold themselves to the highest bidder, as they have done ever since, whenever they had the chance.
A small and humble people grown from a jansenist colony, isolated, defeated, we were powerless to defend ourselves against invasion by all the religious orders of France and Navarre, carrying with them the pomp and privilege of a Catholic Church badly mauled in Europe, rushing to establish themselves in this land blessed by fear-the-mother-of-wisdom. Since then, our institutions of learning, past masters of obscurantism, heirs to automatic, infallible papal authority, have never lacked means to organize a monopolistic reign of selective memory, static reason, paralyzing intention.
Nonetheless, our small and humble people was able to multiply in the generosity of flesh (if not spirit), just north of an immense, youthful, vibrant America, golden-hearted but morally simian; and we were bewitched, intimidated, our confidence destroyed by memories of European masterpieces, disdainful of the authentic creations of our own oppressed classes.
Our destiny seemed fixed forever.
But revolutions and distant wars broke the binding spell, opened intellectual blockades.
A few uncontrollable pearly drops oozed through the walls.
Political struggles turned bitter. The clergy made unhoped-for blunders.
Rebellions followed, then an execution or two. The first few angry breaks occurred between clergy and faithful.
Slowly the breach grew wider, came together, widened once more.
Individuals began traveling abroad, with Paris the centre of attraction. Too distant in time and space, too lively for our timid souls, it was usually just an excuse for a vacation spent catching up on a belated sexual education or gaining the facile assurance that comes from a trip to France, all the better to manipulate crowds back home. For example, with very few exceptions, the conduct of our medical doctors (well-traveled or not) has been scandalous (of- course- we- have- to- –pay- for- those- long- hours- of- study!).
Revolutionary works, if we could ever get our hands on them, seemed like the bitter fruit of a bunch of eccentrics.
Academic works impressed our stunted judgments much more.
Occasionally one of those many voyages actually caused an awakening.
Unmentionable things could not be kept out forever. Banned books circulated widely, bringing a little relief and hope.
Lazy intellects began to clear, stimulated by contact with the accursed poets, who were not monsters, but dared to express loudly and clearly those things which the most unfortunate among us stifled out of shame and a fear of being swallowed alive. These poets shed some light by their example. They were first to acknowledge the anxieties of a modern world as painfully lost as a babe in the woods. The answers they presentred were disturbing, incisive, fresh, altogether different from the tired old refrains heard in this land of Quebec and in seminaries the world over.
The bounds of our dreams were changed forever.
The thick, tattered curtains of our horizons suddenly fell, and we were left dizzy.
Shame at our hopeless slavery gave way to pride in a liberty that could be won with vigorous struggle.
To hell with holy water and the French-Canadian tuque!
Whatever they once gave, they were now taking back again, a thousandfold.
We reached beyond Christianity to touch the burning brotherhood of humanity, on which the Church had become a closed door.
And fear in its many forms no longer ruled the land.
Let me describe that fear, with the insane hope of expunging it from memory:
fear of prejudice - of public opinion - of persecution - of general reprobation
fear of being alone without God or a society that inevitably isolates us
fear of ourselves - of our brothers - of poverty
fear of the established order - of absurd laws
fear of fresh relations
fear of the surrational
fear of internal drives
fear of opening the floodgates of our faith in man - in the society of the future
fear of anything that might trigger a transforming love
red fear - blue fear - white fear: links in our chain.
We were moving out of the reign of debilitating fear into the reign of anguish.
Only a stone man could have remained indifferent, faced with a pathetic nation resolutely pretending to be happy in a cruelly extravagant psychological reflex - a cellophane undershirt covering the poignant despair of our times. (How could anyone not scream, reading the news of that horrible collection of lamp shades made of tattooed skin stripped from wretched prisoners at the request of an elegant lady; or stifle a moan at the endless lists of concentration camp torments? Who would not be chilled to the bone at descriptions of Spanish jails, gratuitous reprisals, cold-blooded revenge?) In front of the cruel lucidity of Science, how could anyone suppress a shudder?
And now, after the reign of overpowering the reign of nausea.
Faced by man's apparent inability to right wrongs, by the futility of our efforts, by the vanity of our past hopes, we have grown sick.
For centuries, the generous artefacts of poetic inspiration have been doomed to fall, socially. They have been violently spurned, beyond the pale of a society which then tried to exploit them, distorting them forever through absorption and false assimilation.
For centuries, magnificent revolutions, their breasts gorged with life, have been crushed after one brief moment of delirious hope, scarcely interrupting a relentless downward slide:
The French revolutions
The Russian Revolution
The Spanish Revolution
aborted in international confusion despite the impotent hopes of countless simple souls throughout the world.
Once again, death triumphant over generosity.
How could we not feel nauseous in the face of rewards handed out for brutal cruelty, to liars, counterfeits, makers of still-born artifacts, to hair-splitters, tired self-servers, manipulators, to the false prophets of humanity, the foulers of wells.
How could we not feel nauseous in the face of our own cowardice, impotence, fragility and bewilderment?
In the face of our own disastrous loves.... Confronted by the fact that cherished illusions will always win out over objective mysteries.
Since man alone has this talent for causing misery to others, where can the secret of such a skill be found, if not in our zeal to defend a civilization that governs the fates of powerful nations?
The United States, Russia, England, France, Germany, Italy; sharp-fanged heirs to the same Ten Commandments, a common gospel.
The religion of Christ has dominated the world. Look what done with it: sister religions have taken to step-sister exploitation
If you want to abolish the specific forms of competition for raw materials, prestige and authority, they will heartily agree. It doesn't matter to them which nation is most powerful. Give the upper hand to whomever you like, pick anyone you want to rule the world, you'll still have the same basic structure, perhaps with a few minor changes in detail.
Christian civilization has reached the end of its tether. The next world war will see its collapse as any possibility of international competition is destroyed.
Its cadaverous condition will strike even tight-shut eyes.
A decomposition begun in the XIVth Century will turn even the toughest stomachs.
A loathsome exploitation, effectively maintained for centuries at the cost of the best things in life, will be exposed at last to a multitude of victims, docile slaves whose eagerness to defend their servitude has been in direct proportion to their wretchedness.
The torture will end.
Christian decadence in its collapse will drag down all the peoples and classes it has touched, from first to last, top to bottom.
The nadir of its disgrace will correspond inversely to the heights of the XIIIth Century.
In the XIIIth Century, when the first stage of moral evolution had gone as far as it could, intuition gave way to reason. Gradually, calculated acts replaced acts of faith. Exploitation began in the heart of the church with the self-serving use of emotions which were already there, but petrified; it began with the rational study of scriptures for the sake of maintaining a supremacy gained originally through spontaneity.
In the name of maximum productivity, rational exploitation gradually spread to everything society did.
Faith took refuge in the heart of the masses, becoming the last hope for revenge, the final compensation. But even there, hope lost its edge.
Among the elite, mathematics took the place of metaphysical speculations now seen as useless.
Observation became more important than transfiguration.
Scientific method showed us that progress was imminent in the short term. Decadence became pleasant and necessary, encouraging the birth of versatile machines capable of dizzying speeds. It allowed us to straight-jacket mighty rivers as a prelude to the willful destruction of our planet. Our scientific instruments gave us astonishing ways of investigating and controlling things that were too small, too fast, too vibrant, to slow or too immense for us. Reason allowed us to conquer the world; a world in which we have lost our unity.
The struggle between psychic and rational powers is near paroxysm.
Through systematically controlled material progress - the privilege of the affluent - we were able, with the help of the Church (and later without it), to evolve politically. But we have not been able to renew our basic sensitivity, our subconscious; nor have we allowed the full emotional evolution of the masses, which is all that could have gotten us out of our deep Christian rut.
A society born in faith will perish by that two-edged sword of reason: INTENTION.
Our collective moral strength has regressed steadily into a purely individual and sentimental one, and thus we have woven a lining for an already impressive screen of abstract knowledge behind which society hides, quietly devouring its ill-gotten gains.
It took the last two wars to bring us to this absurd condition. The horror of the third will be decisive. The zero hour of total sacrifice is at hand.
European rats are already trying to build bridges for a head-long rush across the Atlantic. But a wave of events will break over the greedy, the glutted, the opulent, the smug, the blind and the deaf.
They will be tossed without mercy.
A new collective hope will be born.
We must make ready to meet it with exceptional clear-sightedness, bound together anonymously by a renewed faith in the future, in the community of the future.
Magic spoils, magically wrested from the unknown, lie ready for our use, collected by all true poets. The transforming powers of this booty are as great as the violent reactions it once provoked, as great as its resistance to later attempts at assimilation. After more than two centuries, Sade still can't be found in our bookstores, and Isidore Ducasse, dead for over a hundred years of revolution and carnage, is still too potent for flabby contemporary minds, however much they've grown used to filth and corruption.
All the objects in this treasure-hoard have proven themselves immune to our society. They remain an incorruptible, perceptible legacy for tomorrow. They were spontaneously ordained outside of civilization and in opposition to it. For them to become active (on the social level) today's drives must be set free.
Until that happens, our duty is plain.
We must break with the conventions of society once and for all, and reject its utilitarian spirit. We must refuse to function knowingly at less than our physical and mental potential; refuse to close our eyes to vice and fraud perpetrated in the name of knowledge or favors or due respect. We refuse to be confined to the barracks of plastic arts - it's a fortress, but easy enough to avoid. We refuse to keep silent. Do what you want with us, but you must hear us out. We will not accept your fame or attendant honors. They are the stigmata of shame, silliness and servility.
We refuse to serve, or to be used for such purposes. We reject all forms of INTENTION, the two-edged, perilous sword of REASON. Down with both of them, back they go!
MAKE WAY FOR MAGIC! MAKE WAY FOR OBJECTIVE MYSTERIES!
MAKE WAY FOR LOVE!
MAKE WAY FOR INTERNAL DRIVES!
Set against and balancing this total refusal is our complete responsibility.
The self-serving act remains attached to its author - it is stillborn.
Acts of passion break free because they are inherently dynamic.
Gladly we accept full responsibility for tomorrow. Let rational effort turn backwards and concern itself with disengaging the present from the limbo of the past.
Our passions are shaping the future spontaneously, unpredictably, compulsively.
We are forced to accept the past along with our birth, but there is nothing sacred about it. We don't owe the past a thing.
It is naive and unhealthy to look at people and events in history r their virtues to through a magnifying glass of fame, exaggerating the point where they seem unattainable by modern man. Of course they show qualities beyond the reach of slick, academic counterfeits, but the same may be said whenever a man follows the most basic drives of his nature; whenever he consents to be a new man in a new age (which is the definition of all men for all time).
Enough brutal assassination of the present and future under repeated clubbings from the past.
We have done enough if we turn back to yesterday in order to extricate the drives of today. At best, tomorrow can never be anything more than the unforseeable consequence of today.
No use worrying until it comes.
A Final Squaring of Accounts
The Establishment resents our dedication to a cause, our anxious outbursts, our excesses. They see them as an insult to their indolence, their smugness, their fine sense of the good things in life ( real life, full of generous hope and love, having been smothered under habit).
Friends of the status quo suspect us of preaching 'Revolution.'
Friends of the 'Revolution' callus mere rebels, saying we 'protest against the established order, but our desire is only to transform, not change it.'
Very delicately put, but we think we understand.
It's a matter of class.
We are credited with the naive intention of wanting to 'transform' society by replacing the men in power with others just like them. So obviously, why change at all?
But they're not the right class! As if a change of class meant a change of civilization, change of desires, change of hope.
They dedicate themselves (on a fixed salary, plus a cost-of-living allowance) to organizing the proletariat; and more power to them. The trouble is, once victoriously ensconced, they'll want more than their present meagre wages.
Always on the backs of that same proletariat and always in the time honoured way, they will demand supplementary adjustments and long-term renewals with no questions asked.
We agree, nonetheless, that they are part of a long historical tradition. Salvation will only come after exploitation to great excess.
They will be that excess.
They will be so in the normal course of things, with no need of anyone in particular. And the feast will be sumptuous.
We have refused, in advance, to take part.
Therein lies our 'guilty abstention.'
You can keep your spoils, rational and premeditated like everything else on the warm bosom of decadence. We'll settle for unpredictable passion; we'll settle for total risk through global refusal.
(We can't help the fact that various social classes have succeeded each other in governing the people, and all inevitably fell into decadence. Nor can we help it if history teaches that only a full development of our faculties, followed by a complete renewal of our emotional well-springs, can take us out of this dead end, onto the open road leading towards a civilization impatient to be born.)
Those in power, and those with aspirations, would all love to grant our every wish, if only we would measure out our activities in coffee spoons and help pave the way for their schemes of distortion.
To win the day, we have to pull our caps over our eyes, plug our ears, roll up our sleeves and wade into the pack, clearing a path left and right.
If we're going to be cynics, we'd like to do it spontaneously and without malice aforethought.
Kind souls are apt to smile at the limited financial success of our collective exhibitions, charmed to think they're the first to notice how poorly our works sell.
it is no vain hope or getting rich that causes us to go on mounting one exhibition after another. We know there's a world of difference between us and the wealthy. They don't like playing with fire,
In the past, any sales in that direction have come about through unintentional misunderstandings.
We believe this text will help avoid any future confusion.
If our activities seem feverish, it is because we feel the urgent need for solidarity with others.
And in that regard, our success has been explosive.
Yesterday we were alone and irresolute.
Today a group exists, with deep and courageous ramifications, some of them already spreading beyond our borders.
We must share the glorious responsibility of conserving the precious treasure we are heir to. It too is part of a long historical tradition.
Our relationship to its artifacts must be constantly renewed, challenged, called into question. This is an impalpable, demanding relationship which requires the vital forces of action.
The treasure I speak of is the poetic stock, the emotional fountain of youth from which future centuries will drink. It can only be transmitted if it is TRANSFORMED. Otherwise, it is distorted.
Let those moved by the spirit of this adventure join us.
Within a foreseeable future, men will cast off their useless chains. They will realize their full, individual potential according to the unpredictable, necessary order of spontaneity - in splendid anarchy.
Until then, we will not rest or falter. Hand in hand with others thirsting for a better life, no matter how long it takes, regardless of support or persecution, we will joyfully respond to a savage need for liberation.
Magdeleine ARBOUR, Marcel BARBEAU, Bruno CORMIER, Claude GAUVREAU, Pierre GAUVREAU, Muriel GUILBAULT, Marcelle FERRON-HAMELIN, Fernand LEDUC, Thérèse LEDUC, Jean-Paul MOUSSEAU, Maurice PERRON, Louis RENAUD, Françoise RIOPELLE, Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, Françoise SULLIVAN.
The Refus global manifesto was launched at a Montréal bookstore, Librairie Tranquille, on August 9, 1948. The final version of the text, retyped by Pierre Gauvreau, was published by Mithra-Mythe, a publishing house founded by Maurice Perron, one of the signatories, specifically for this purpose. No established editor dared run the risk of publishing this text, which questioned the very basis of Québec society at the time. Four hundred copies of the 12-page booklet were printed using a Gestetner machine. This technique involved typing the text onto special wax-covered sheets to produce stencils that could be fitted on rollers. Ink was smoothed into the stencilled letters, which could then be transferred onto sheets of paper as they were passed through the rollers by hand, one by one. This procedure was probably carried out in a school. The manifesto was presented in a cardboard portfolio.
Borduas seems to have foreseen the media frenzy and public outcry that would result from the manifesto’s publication, for he was reluctant to let other members of the group sign it. He went so far as to refuse to let the youngest members put their names on it, for fear of the reprisals they might face.
Apart from a poem on the frontispiece, the collection contained nine texts produced by the group’s members: the “Refus global” manifesto itself; “Commentaires sur des mots courants” and “En regard du surréalisme actuel,” by Borduas; “Bien-être,” “L’Ombre sur le cerceau” and “Au coeur des quenouilles,” three poetic theatre texts by Claude Gauvreau; “L’oeuvre picturale est une expérience” an essay by Bruno Cormier, “La danse et l’espoir,” the text of a lecture by Françoise Sullivan; and “Qu’on le veuille ou non ...” , a poetic “collage” by Fernand Leduc. The cover, designed by Jean-Paul Riopelle and Claude Gauvreau, bore a two-toned watercolour painting, the title Refus global and a play-on-words inspired by the title. The publication also contained photographs by Maurice Perron that reproduced certain works by the group’s members, as well as images of theatrical creations and choreographies. The booklet was the final outcome of the Automatists’ collective thought.
In “Commentaires sur des mots courants” (Commentaries on some current words), for instance, Borduas put forward a lexicon of key words related to the intellectual approach expressed in the publication. An example is his definition of the term “sensible”: «Adj. That reacts generously to the perceptions of the senses. Children’s drawings are so moving simply because of their inability to find a rational solution to the problems encountered by their senses. As soon as their teacher shows them such a solution, the enchantment vanishes from their drawings at once. The ability to express a formal relationship linked directly to the perceptions of the senses.»
In 1950, the first English translation of the manifesto was undertaken by Simon Watson Taylor in order to include it in a series of publications on Surrealism. This project was abandoned after the first issue, and the text of Total Refusal was not published until later and only partially at that.
Excerpt from Refus global :
«We foresee a future in which man is freed from useless chains, to realize a plenitude of individual gifts, in necessary unpredictability, spontaneous and resplendent anarchy.
Until then, without surrender or rest, in community of feeling with those who thirst for better life, without fear of set-backs, in encouragement or persecution, we shall pursue in joy our overwhelming need for liberation.»
© Musée des beaux-arts de Mont-Saint-Hilaire, 2014.
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