Wilfredo Lam, “Visage cubiste” (1939), distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license
At what point do Cubism and the various early twentieth-century avant-gardes intersect with “real” history? In the post-WWII, post-Vietnam, post-Iraq War(s) era, it can seem as if earlier experiments with genre and medium are a luxury the world can no longer afford. Fredric Jameson, with characteristically two-edged irony, calls modernism “our classicism” — suggesting that our nostalgia for those wilder forms of abstraction and performance is motivated by a bad faith that at once preserves and entombs. What do we today, multi-national and polyvalent as we are, have to do with attempts to get at the essence of painting, or ethnicity, or embodiment?
I started thinking about this question while reading Aimé Césaire’s “Avis de tirs” (“Gunnery Warning”) from Les armes miraculeuses (1946). Is this poem surrealist? Or, like Lam’s face above, cubist? Some combination of the two or something new? First of all, I’m struck by the way Césaire knocks all the conventional interpretations of Dalí’s overfamously oozing watches out of my mind:
délacent avant temps
le corsage des versus
et la foudroyante géométrie du trigonocéphale
pour mon rêve aux jambes de montre en retard
pour ma haine de cargison coulée […]
And in Clayton Eschleman and Annette Smith’s translation:
the bodice of bolts
and the lightning geometry of the fer-de-lance
for my dream with the legs of a slow watch
for my sunken cargo hatred.
(The Collected Poetry, 89)
Césaire, somehow suddenly, translates all of surrealism’s infatuations with dream-machine technology and its semi-profound speculations about time into a more historically concrete experience: the material legacies of colonialism in Martinique. What can sometimes seem to be surrealism’s apolitical associative anarchy or, worse, reactionary escapism, fleeing in all directions away from what is right in front of your nose, here instead constellates, pulling together a set of phenomenologically rich images with a history of “sunken cargo hatred.”
And notice that the speaker is talking about “dream-legs” or a dream “with” the legs of a slow watch, not a dream of a slow watch. Césaire’s watch is the form, not the content — not the material being worked on, but the practice of working.