|Prologue to The Kingdom of This World (1949)
Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980), one of Cuba's most distinguished
writers and musicologists, had spent the years 1928-1939 in Europe as part
of Andre Breton's Surrealist movement. He returned to Havana in 1939, having
broken with the Surrealists, whom he now accused of bad faith, and otherwise
thoroughly disenchanted with European and and literature. In 1943, he travelled
to Haiti with the French actor Louis Jouvet and his troupe. In Port au
Prince he delivered a lecture on "L'evolution culturelle de l'Amerique
Latine," in which he insists on the anti-Cartesian character of Latin America.
On his return to Cuba, he began writing The Kingdom of this World, which
recounts the slave insurrections led by Mackandal and Bouckman, and the
rise to power and downfall of King Henri Christophe. The text that
follows is a translation of the original preface to that novel. It is at
once a screed against the Surrealists and a manifesto on the marvelous
reality of the Americas. A revised and expanded version of the Prologue
was published as a travelogue in 1975; a translation of that essay is available
in Zamora and Faris, eds. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community
...What we are to understand in this matter of metamorphosis into
Toward the end of 1943, I had the good fortune to visit the kingdom
of Henri Christophe (2)---the poetic ruins
of Sans-Souci, the massive citadel of La Ferriere,
(3) imposingly intact despite lightning bolts and earthquakes---
and to acquaint myself with the still-Norman Cap-Haitien (the Cap Français
of the former colony) where a street lined with long balconies leads to
the cut-stone palace once inhabited by Pauline Bonaparte.
After having felt the undeniable enchantment of this Haitian earth,
after having discerned magical warnings on the red roads of
The marvelous, manufactured by sleight of hand, by juxtaposing objects
ordinarily never found together: the old, fraudulent story of the fortuitous
encounter of the umbrella and the sewing machine on an operating table
(8),which engendered ermine spoons,(9)
The result of attempting to arouse the marvelous at all costs is that
the thaumaturges become bureaucrats. Invoked by means
But we should note that when Andre Masson tried to draw the jungle of
Martinique, with its incredible entangling of plants and
There are still too many "adolescents who take pleasure in raping the
freshly murdered cadavers of beautiful women"
In the first place, the phenomenon of the marvelous presupposes a faith.
Those who do not believe in saints cannot be cured by the miracles of the
saints, in the same way that those who are not Quixotes cannot enter, body
and soul, into the world of
All Van Gogh needed was faith in the Sunflower (19) to capture its revelation on a canvas. Thus, the idea of the marvelous invoked in the context of disbelief--which is what the surrealists did for so many years--was never anything but a literary trick, and a boring one at that for having been prolonged, as is the literature that is oneiric by "arrangement," or the praises of folly now back in fashion. But, by the same token, we are not, for all that, going to yield to those who advocate a return to the realism--a term that takes on, in this context, a slavishly political agenda--because they are merely replacing the magician's tricks with the commonplaces of academics or the scatological delights of some existentialists.
There is clearly no excuse for poets and artists who praise sadism without
practising it, who admire the supermacho because of
All of this became particularly evident to me during my stay in Haiti,
where I found myself in daily contact with something we
I found the marvelous real with every step. But I also realized that
the presence and vitality of the marvelous real was not a
There is a moment in the sixth song of Maldoror when the hero, chased
by all the police in the world, escapes from "an army of
Maldoror--Isidore Ducasse himself confesses it--was nothing more than
a "poetic Rocambole." (25) All he left
behind was a
The text that follows, even though I didn't conceive of it in programatic
fashion, responds to this order of concerns. It tells of a
And yet, because of the dramatic singularity of the events, because
of the fantastic bearing of the characters who met, at a given
2. Henri Christophe (1767-1820); president (1807-1811) and king (1811-1820) of the French Caribbean colony of Saint Dominique (now Haiti). He was born in Grenada, and distinguished himself in the revolution against the French in 1791. In 1806, he and the Haitian general Alexandre Pétion helped to overthrow the self-proclaimed emperor Jean Jacques Dessaline. In 1811, following a civil war between Pétion and Christophe, who in 1807 had proclaimed himself President of nothern Haiti, Christophe proclaimed himself king as Henri I. He did much to improve the lives of his people, and his court tried to rival the splendour of Versailles, but his rule was brutally autocratic. In 1820, he was incapacitated by a stroke, and shot himself when his army mutinied.
3. Images of Sans Souci and la Ferriere
4. Pauline Bonaparte (1780-1825); Napolean's favorite sister resided in Cap Francais as the wife of General Victor Leclerc, who had been sent to quell the insurrection. He died from fever in 1802, after which Pauline returned to Europe to marry Prince Borghese of Italy.
5. Petro and Rada: "loas" or spirits, in the Voudon religion. Rada loas are benevolent and gentle; Petro loas are dark gods, counterbalances to the benevolent forces of the Rada, and can be very aggressive and sometimes ferocious.
6. The forest of Broceliande lies in the region known today as Paimpont, to the south west of Rennes.. This enchanted region is the setting for the quest by the Knights of the Round Table to recover the Holy Grail under orders from King Arthur. One of the best known inhabitants of the forest was Merlin the Magician.
7. The second Delirium, "The Alchemy of the Word," is from A Season in Hell (1873) the best known prose poem by the great French Symbolist, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1881). The poem recounts his sufferings close to madness and his failed experiment to become a seer poet.
As translated by Paul Schmidt, and published in 1976 by Harper Colophon Books, Harper & Row, the poem reads, in part:.
My turn now. The story of one of my insanities.8. Carpentier alludes to, and may be misreading Isidore Ducasse (1846-1870), who wrote under the name Comte de Lautréamont. The image of the umbrella appears in the sixth canto of Les Chants de Maldoror (1890) and was for Breton and the Surrealists the emblem of a fortuitous and incongruous encounter. Lautréamont describes an encounter with a passerby as follows:
I am an expert at judging age from the physiognomic lines of the brow: he is sixteen years and four months of age. He is as handsome as the retractility of the claws in birds of prey; or, again, as the unpredictability of muscular movement in sores in the soft part of the posterior cervical region; or, rather, as the perpetual motion rat-trap which is always reset by the trapped animal and which can go on catching rodents indefinitely and works even when it is hidden under straw; and, above all, as the chance juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table!The Surrealists regarded Ducasse as an antecedent, and this particular image and variations of it seem to have been especially resonant with them. See, for example, Salvator Dali's poem, "You Could See the Ass's Bone," in Julien Levy's Surrealism (New York, 1936) or Joseph Cornell's Collage(1932) below. According to Nancy Gray Diaz, Carpentier is reading Lautréamont through a Surrealist filter; in actuality, the Chants of Maldoror constitute "a vigorous, multivalent assault on the French popular novel, Romantic literature and beyond these, the western literary tradition, for the transgressions of its myth-making"(52). See "The Metamorphosis of Maldoror and Mackandal: Reconsidering Carpentier's Reading of Lautréamont," Modern LanguageStudies 21, no 3 (Summer 1991): p. 48-56.]
Meret Oppenheim created her Object: Fur Covered Cup, Saucer, and Spoon in 1936.
Salvador Dali's Rainy Taxi was the main object in the lobby of the January, 1938 "Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme". The installation consisted of the hulk of a taxi containing a driver with a shark's head (supposedly Christopher Columbus) and a blonde female passenger. Holes had been cut in the roof of the taxi to let rain seep through the installation for the benefit of the 200 live snails.
The "head of a lion on the pelvis of a widow" refers to Georges Hugnet's Woman Panther(1938).
10. Carpentier aludes to Donatien Alphonse François, comte de Sade (1740-1814). His Historie de Juliette; ou, Les Prosperites du vice (6 vols.) appeared in 1797. Alfred Jarry (1873-1907); his Ubi Roi appeared in 1896. Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818); his The Monk was published in 1796.
12. Two Children Menaced by a Nightingale (1924), by Max Ernst; Horses Devouring Birds (1927) by Andre Masson, oil and feathers on canvas. The image of the fig devouring the donkey occurs early in the fourth canto of the Chants, and is intended to convey Maldoror's condemnation of figurative language. The "drooping clocks," "seamstress' dummies," "phallic monuments," etc. referred to earlier in the paragraph indicate works by Dali and Giorgio de Chirico.
13. Andre Masson (1896-1987) left France in March 1941, and spent three weeks in Martinique in the company of Wilfredo Lam(1902-1982) and Claude Levi-Strauss. Lam had come to Martinique with Breton and numerous other artists and intellectuals, all heading for the USA directly or indirectly. Early in 1942, and in subsequent years, Lam attended Afro-Cuban ritual dances and nañigo ceremonies in Havana and elsewhere with Carpentier and others. In 1945, Lam, Breton, and Pierre Mabille visited Haiti, where they witnessed voudon ceremonies.
14. Note with what American prestige the works of Wilfredo Lam triumph, in their deep originality, over the other painters shown in this special issue--a panorama of modern art--published in 1946 by Cahiers d'Art. (Author's note)
15. Ives Tanguy (1900-1955)
16. "In his critique of Ducasse, Carpentier demonstrates ironically how much of a Surrealist he is. Furthermore, the remark about the delights of raping live women places him with the Surrealists in the cult of gratuitous violence advocated by Breton, Artaud, and other French writers of the thirties (including Gaston Bachelard, who wrote his study of Lautréamont, a celebration of violence, in the thirties. Violence in El reino itself, of course, is in no way gratuitous, since it serves the goal of revolution against oppression. But here again Carpentier approximates Ducasse, in whose work violence is anything but gratuitous, as it works to try to demolish what Ducasse considers to be the pernicious influence of literary myth, metamorphosis arming itself to destroy metaphor" (55). Nancy Gray Diaz; see note 8.
17. Cf;: William Seabrook, The Magic Island (1929)] " I learned from Louis that we white that we white strangers in this 20th century city (New York), with our electric lights and motor cars, bridge games and cocktail parties, were surrounded by another world invisible, a world of marvels, miracles, and wonders--a world in which the dead rose from their graves and walked, in which a man lay dying within shouting distance of my own house and from no mortal illness but because and old woman out in Léogane sat slowly unwinding the thread wrapped round a wooden doll made in his image, a world in which trees and beasts talked for those whose ears were attuned, in which gods spoke from burning bushes, as on Sinai, and sometimes still walked bodily as in Eden's garden...Voodoo in Haiti is a profound and vitally alive religion--alive as Christianity was in its beginnings and in the early Middle Ages when miracles and mystical illuminations were common everyday occurences" (12).
19. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
20. François Macandal, was the famous runaway slave who led a six-year rebellion (1751-57) against the French colonists in Saint Domingo. He was reputed to be an hougan, or voodoo sorcerer, and drew upon African traditions and religions to motivate his followers. The French burned him at the stake in Cap Français in 1758, although his followers believed that he escaped execution by turning himself into a fly..
21. Bouckman, a houngan who employed vaudau in its most aggressive (Petro) form to summon the slaves to revolt at a ceremony at Bois Caïman in 1791. He was assumed by some of his followers to be the reincarnation of Mackandal.He was captured and beheaded.
22. Giovnni Batista Piranesi (1720-1778). In Carceri d'Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), 1745 this Italian engraver transformed Roman ruins into immense, fantastic dungeons with gloomy arcades, staircases rising to incredible heights, and bizarre galleries leading nowhere. Piranesi's engravings were an influence on 19th-century romanticism and also played a role in the development of Surrealism.
24. The enchanted City of the Caesars is a variant of the Eldorado legend and has incited countless explorations in Patagonia. Many Spaniards claimed to have actually been there, and and numerous others went in search of it.. Sebastian Cabot, who discovered the Paraná and Paraguay rivers and established the first Spanish settlement in the Plata basin in1528, was preparing to search for the fabled city when a surprise attack by the Indians in1529 wiped out his base at Fort Sancti Spíritus.
25. Rocambole was the hero of Les Exploits de
Rocambole (1859), French popular romances by Pierre-Alexix, Vicomte
de Poson du Terrail (1828-1871). Maldoro is thus the ultimate parody of
the Romantic literary hero and, at the same time, the embodiment and the
destroyer of the Romantic literary myth. See Nancy Gray Diaz, note 2.