Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Sartre and Adorno: Committed Literature

Committed Literature vs. Autonomous Art

An officer of the Nazi occupation forces visited the painter [Picasso] in his studio and, pointing to Guernica, asked: “Did you do that?” Picasso reputedly answered, “No, you did.”[1]

Adorno’s On Commitment was written roughly 15 years after Sartre’s treatise What Is Writing? Sartre’s ideas on writing, while revised by a number of writers over years, like Merleau-Ponty, it was not completely challenged until Adorno. The basic argument goes something like this. Sartre contends that only committed art, by which he means prose specifically, can confront power structures, can, as people are fond to saying, speak truth to power. The prose writer, Sartre contends, “is a speaker . . . [who] makes use of words to act upon the world.”[2] Writing is act that Sartre equates with speaking and acting the world. He should ask himself what would happen if everybody read what I write, with the intention the he can change the world. “The writer has chosen to reveal the world and particularly to reveal man to other men so that the latter may assume full responsibility before the object which thus been thus laid bare.”[3] For Adorno, he sees differences between art that it committed and art he considers to be automonous. Autonomous art is that which does not carry an overtly political message in service to an ideal, but which has one anyway. He differentiates both of these from an art that is purely for the market, a commodity, which has no political life at all and cannot even be considered art. For all others, though, committed and autonomous art, it is actually autonomous art that is preferred. The autonomous art object is not one that is apolitical at all, he argues, but is one that is not partisan and short-sighted in its approach. After all, Adorno argues, you cannot write a great novel that is anti-semitic, regardless of how well-written it is. He then goes on to talk about Brecht, of whom much is made about his own political commitment. Perhaps Brecht is important, yet it is not, Adorno contends, his most partisan political plays that are his greatest. When he is praised, it is for his non-committed, least partisan plays and the ones that involve that most “committed” in Sartre’s eyes, are the ones that must routinely be overlooked or forgiven for their commitment. His example is Brecht’s treatment of Arturio Ui. “The true horror of fascism is conjured away” Adorno informs us. “[I]t is no longer a slow end-product of the concentration of social power, but mere hazard, like an accident or crime.[4] Saint Joan or The Good Woman of Szechuan, likewise show that “the more preoccupied Brecht becomes with information, and the less he looks for images, the more he misses the essence of capitalism which the parable is supposed to present.[5] In Sartre’s own writing, too, his “plays are vehicles for the author’s ideas, which have been left behind in the race of esthetic forms. They operate with traditional intrigues, exalted by an unshaken faith in meanings which can be transferred from art to reality.”[6]

In Sartre we are told that the writer can write only for his time and only, really for his audience. For Sartre, committed language is in its time and place. He is not writing for everyone—but for the people in his time and his place—for his people. “Whether he wants to or not” Sartre contends, “and even if he has eyes on eternal laurels, the writer is speaking to his contemporaries and brothers of his class and race.[7] Sartre believes that writing for one’s time provides that context for work. It grounds it in its time and place. To make his point about writing for people of your own time, he gives the example of speaking to an American audience, which he believes would not get his prose as readily as a Frenchman.

“There would have to be a good deal of analysis & precaution. I would waste twenty pages in dispelling preconceptions, prejudices and legends. . . . I would have to be sure of my position at every step, I would have to look for images and symbols in American history which would enable them to understand ours. . . . If I were to write about the same subject for Frenchmen we would be entre nous.”

Thus, according to Sartre, all authors have in their mind the audience that they are writing for and thus, the story defined for its readers, is itself, defined.

In contrast, Adorno has no such audience in mind. Adorno does not give the audience as much attention as Sartre does—at least on the surface. But Sartre’s discussion of the audience is What Is Literature? seems a bit facile now. He discusses audience needs only in terms of the race and nationality of the author. He does give a more nuanced example here, talking about the doubled audience – at once the whites of good will, as he calls them—CIO members, radical left, etc.—and blacks who live in this world and understand it. He also talks about not interpolating the racist white person, who is apt to not be moved by the novel. True, he admits, some racist whites might read it and be moved. But this is a mere accident and not the audience that whites seek. But he leaves out a great number of people that are potential readers for this work. Not everyone has his mind made up on this issue as of 1947. There is a huge, uneducated audience out there who could read Wright’s novels and be moved, and Sartre does not really seem to be considering this audience. The reality is that the world is not divided into merely two, or at best three, type of readers—those who would vehemently oppose you, those who support you but lack all of the necessary information to be anything but allies, and those from where you come but who lack the political power from his base.[8] It does not take into account uneducated masses who may not have thought about the implications of blacks not having the opportunities or conditions for voting, believing that they have the law on their side, for example, so that’s all the need. It is, in fact, the exact opposite view point of the abolitionists, who believed that if only people truly understood the position of the oppressed, they would certainly come to their rescue.

Of course, Sartre is really, at bottom, viewing everything in literature through the lens of World War II, and even in that, with a very revisionist lens. First, he feels the very real anguish of a writer who has lived through World War II and who had failed, with his writing, to have stopped it. If only he and other writers had done more. If only all writers had been true to their time, to their people, instead of writing for some imagined, far off audience. It is hard not to read What Is Literature without feeling the weight of its recent history. But here again, Sartre’s beliefs get in the way. Sartre wants to believe that if only people had the facts, if only the writers had lived up to their responsibility, they could have had an impact. For Adorno, it is the uncommitted writing of a Beckett, the accomplishes more than any committed writer, for example that of Brecht, could have.

“Beckett’s Ecce Homo is what human beings have become. As though with eyes drained of tears, they stare silently out of his sentences. The spell they cast, which also binds them, is lifted by being reflected in them. However, the minimal promise of happiness they contain, which refuses to be traded for comfort, cannot be had for a price less than total dislocation, to the point of worldlessness. Here every commitment to the world must be abandoned to satisfy the ideal of the committed work of art—that polemical alienation which Brecht as a theorist invented, and as an artist practiced less and less as he bound himself more tightly to the role of a friend of mankind.”[9]

For Sartre, though, the poetic is the least political of all writing. He starts right off with this premise and spends quite a lot of time on it for something he consider out of scope for consideration. He begins right away talk about other art forms which cannot be committed, among them Guernica the masterpiece. The problem with Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, says Sartre, is that among other things, is that it is both impossible to hear, yet would take too long to express adequately. You would never, he explains, expect to one to paint meaning, or put it to sound. Therefore, you cannot expect to it to be committed in the way that art is. No, “only prose discloses the world with the intention of changing it. Only prose uses language to confer meaning on objects in the real world, thereby demonstrating that to speak is indeed to act.[10] Steven Unger says that Sartre “displaces – rather that rejects – poetry because it does not transmit . . . .clear and unambiguous meaning.[11] In other words, it is poetry’s lack of transparency that bothers Sartre. Sartre prefers language that lays it out, that spells out what it intends to do that interests him. And, he believes, poetry does not have that function, but that prose does. In poetry, he argues, the poet serves words rather than utilizing. To a poet, words are signs, they are things to make use of, to point to other things. They are, for poets, “natural things which sprint naturally upon the earth like grass and trees.[12] In contrast, to the writer words are things which are “tools which one gradually wears out and which one throws away when no longer serviceable.[13] Instead, it is Sartre’s utilitarian project to “consider words as instruments,” as carriers of more or less stable meaning. In fact, Sartre considers “the crisis of language, which broke out at the beginning of this century is a poetic crisis,”[14] Sartre doesn’t unpack this and it is certainly not something that I have the space to do justice to here, but it might certainly have to do with the rise of semiotics, of Dadaism, and with the rise of nonrepresentational art and poetry, all of which, while certainly having precedent in the 19th century, really came to fruition in the 20th century. It could almost seem as though Sartre is looking for literature, prose literature, to fill in the gap that has been left by poetry.

Adorno seems to think so. Perhaps Adorno’s dictum about poetry after Auschwitz would lead one to think differently. After all, it was Adorno who said that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. But for Adorno, all of life after Auschwitz is barbaric. Poetry may be barbarism, Adorno contend, but it, and the uncommitted arts that Sartre lists, like painting and music, are what we have to express that which is inexpressible. There is even, Adorno admits, some danger of schadenfreude, that pleasure that one takes in the suffering of others, that may avoidable in something other than directly representing experience. “The so-called artistic representa¬tion of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it. . . . When genocide becomes part of the cultural heritage in the themes of committed literature, it becomes easier to continue to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder.”[15] With art that does not represent reality, but rather points to it, points us toward it without showing it back to us, there is an opportunity to see the torturer, the murder, for example, in the face of another. Sartre tells us that the “[e]ulogists of ‘relevance’ are more likely to find Sartre’s Huis Clos profound, than to listen patiently to a text whose language jolts signification and by its very distance from “meaning” revolts in advance against positivist subordination of meaning.”[16] He accuses Sartre of not understanding the unintelligible, and therefore of not engaging with it, contending that “when the social contract with reality is abandoned, and literary works no longer speak as though they were reporting fact, hairs start to bristle.”[17]

The Negritude Poets

my negritude is not a stone

nor a deafness flung against the clamor of the day

my negritude is not a white speck of dead water

on the dead eye of the earth

my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral

it plunges into the red flesh of the soil

it plunges into the blaxing flesh of the sky

my negritude riddles with holes

the dense affliction of its worthy patience.[18]

Interestingly enough, however, is Sartre’s willingness just a scant two years later, to consider poetic text as politically efficacious outside of Europe. In Black Orpheus, the introduction to the word of the Negritude poets, he notes that the colonial man lives in different circumstances, therefore has a different relationship to words. Because the colonial subject relates to the colonizer through language that is not his own, he must be controlled by language. But whereas the subject us France is tied to prose, the colonial subject must speak metaphorically. His very thought processes have been colonized and he must now hide his meaning, cloak it in metaphor to speak of even the most basic things. He is whole language is colonized, he must be too. In a little turn of irony, the great heroes of the Negritude Poets was that the surrealists. In What Is Literature? Sartre had pretty severely denounced the work of the surrealists, as had most European Marxists at the time (and since). He said at the time, that “by the symbolic arrangement of language by producing aberrant meanings . . . surrealism pursues the curious enterprise of realizing nothingness by too much fullness of being” and that they were after “confusion and not synthesis.”[19] So strong and so recent was this denunciation of surrealism, that when Sartre wrote Black Orpheus he had to take great pains to note that “Negritude poetry does not merely export the Surrealists spirit of revolt.”[20] Cesaire called Surrealism “another factor in the development of our consciousness” adding ironically “Negroes were made fashionable in France by Picasso, Vlaminck, Braque, etc.”[21] “Surrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor.”[22] He talks about it as a tool that allowed him to explode French forms of language. He describes using Surrealist approaches to summon up the forces of the unconscious, which for Cesaire was “a call to Africa.”[23] As a matter of fact, for all of his talk about commitment in literature, it is Andre Breton, and with him surrealism, that is credited with being the catalyst that set things in motion for a revolution in Haiti. In 1945, Breton travelled to Haiti, where he was “impatiently awaited by Haiti’s youth” according to the magazine Conjonction. Breton asserted that “Surrealism is allied with people of color . . . on the one hand, because it has always been on their side against every form of white imperialism and banditry . . .; on the other hand, because there are very deep affinities between so-called ‘primitive’ thought and Surrealist thought: both want to overthrow the hegemony of consciousness and daily life.”[24] The students praised Surrealism as an “enterprise of liberation” and threatened to “respond with certain means: you know which ones” to government repression and brutality.[25] Thereafter, the publication was suspended, many of its editors arrested. Breton’s speeches were cancelled. There were riots in the street and within less than two months, Haiti had a new government, officially recognized by France.

Despite these successes, Sartre still had the last word when it comes to committed art. Surrealism successes were still considered transitional, ameliorative, but just a first step in the transforming of society. For Frantz Fanon, the colonial poet uses “florid language” as a middle passage toward the “ultimate objective, a literature of clarity and command.”[26]

“[P]oetic expression becomes less frequent in proportion as the objectives and the methods of the struggle for liberation become more precise. . . . The lament first makes the indictment; then it makes an appeal. In the period that follows, the words of command are heard. . . . This may be properly called a literature of combat, in the sense that it calls on the whole people to fight for their existence as a nation. . . . It is a literature of combat, because it moulds the national consciousness . . . it assumes responsibility.”[27]

Not surprisingly, the introduction for this book, written in 1968, six years after Adorno’s On Commitment, is written by Sartre. Despite the influence on non-linear, no less surrealist, poetry on the real politik of the colonial subject, it was not to be considered a mature tactic, but at best, an intermediate one on the way to mature politics, of which, presumably, Europe was and the Caribbean would now be able to “catch up.”

Post-Colonial Politics

“through Harlem smoke of beer and whiskey, I

understand the mystery of the signifying monkey

in a blue haze of inspiration I reach to the

totality of being.”[28]

In Henry Louis Gates The Signifying Monkey, he introduces the figure of Esu, which he admits, is taken from several African gods but who always indicates the same things, “individuality, satire, parody, irony, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, change, uncertainty, disruption and reconciliation, betrayal and loyalty, closure and disclosure, encasement and eruption.”[29] This list is partial, but what it does contain is all of the conditions of both a post-colonial identity and in many cases, an avant-garde sensibility. While there are some differences between the two, in many cases, they are similar, much more so that Sartre’s call for a committed, unambiguous, transparent literature.

Gates describes the “function of interpretation and language ‘above” that of ordinary language” as function of Esu. “The literature of Esu consists . . . of a direct assertion about the levels if linguistic assent that separate literal from figurative modes of language use.”[30] Just as the post-colonial subject, Esu’s own discourse “is metaphorically, double-voiced.”[31] The Yoruba language, Gates tells us, felt the need to record opposites, such as Whiteness/Africanness, writing/memorization, and cryptographic/phonetic script to explain differences between white (and moslem) cultures and African culture, most notably that of writing. So the legend goes, the African chose gold over writing, and so was doomed to be slave until they could prove the equality of their thought with white men, despite the fact that the white men’s very language was a copy of the cryptographic script employed by the Yoruba.

This is where the Signifying Monkey comes in. For if Esu the interpreter of the open-ended text, the Monkey is the figure that teaches the interpretation of orality. To build on Gates for just a moment, I would like to add that just as the post-colonial subject must speak the literal language of his or her colonizer, must know what words mean on the literal level, there is also open text that must be interpreted as well, whether in ordinary interaction or the context of meta-language, which is just as critical for the colonized. To be able to take words at their face value is a function of power. For the post-colonial subject learning to navigate a world which they did not create, this double-voicedness, this ability to learn what it is really being said alongside what is actually said, is a critical part of consciousness. Thus, the doubling of the voice here: the double-voicedness of Esu/the Monkey representing the need to speak and to write in the colonists voice, in the colonists language.

In Not the Other Avant-Garde, James Harding and John Rouse look at parallels and disconnects between the avant-garde, historically defined as white and European, and post-colonial movements. They see avant-garde art as practices that been used, mined for western art, while they were at the same time not avant-garde in their own countries, but traditional forms. So like the Signifying Monkey that Gates writes about, they come from ancient traditions like the Yoruba in Africa, or the avant-garde in Japan.

“In many respects, western avant-garde arts have recuperated cultural practices, in

particular, artistic techniques and forms that had been forgotten, abandoned, or decried in the specific history of European cultures since the Renaissance. These acts of recuperation have often built on significant similarities between premodern practices in non-western cultures and transformative cultural practices developed since the early twentiteth century.” [32]

Christopher Innes, likewise develops the theory that “the avant-garde is always a return to the primitive.”[33] Ishmael Reed has indicated that he doesn’t trust modernism and the avant-garde because he doesn’t feel that it’s terribly new. To Reed, there is a borrowing of the modernist avant-garde from a lot of places, not the least of which is the Puritan poets:

I think that avant- garde movements tend to take themselves too seriously and believe that they are originating forms which are, in fact, ancient. For example the whole Imagist manifesto of conciseness and economy in language could probably be traced to the Puritans, who had a "no frills" philosophy which influenced architecture and poetry. . . My research indicates that the women were the founders of, or formed the real foundation of the movement, like Amy Lowell and Harriet Monroe and others, who were neglected.[34]

Finally, John Conteh Morgan has noted that “[i]t is one of the ironies in transnational cultural relations that what has been considered modernist or postmodernist, avant-garde, cutting edge, in the West . . . is in fact quite simply “traditional” or “premodern.”[35]

As with Sartre and Adorno (and Breton), post-colonial theorists and artists are concerned with freedom. Some theorists however, caution against equating the two completely. Conteh-Morgan contends that the post-colonial struggle “is a political project and not the expression of existential angst. . . . a political struggle for national self-retrieval and cultural re-enfranchisement.”[36] In fact, Conteh-Morgan contends that “[t]he postcolonial francophone avant garde . . . is a movement of return to the local and the ethnic (the African) and a rejection of the foreign (Western) seen as a threat to its identity.” [37] Harding and Rouse cite a “cultural chauvinism that permeated the European avant-garde’s interest in what it appropriated under the guise of primitivism”[38] For Harry Elam, “[h]istorically the Western avant-garde art has celebrated and appropriated the ‘avant’ energy of the racial other even as it excluded the work of the racial other. Thus, it has included race by excluding it.”[39]

But in the case of the Negritude poets and at least Andre Breton, who pretty much was the public face of surrealism at the time, as well is for Sartre, there was the racialization of literature happening, as early as 1945. And even as Sartre was putting forth his own ideas about liberation, he was still incrementally flexible enough to see that his ideas would not work for Francophone poets in Martinique or Haiti, that they needed a different way. Was their way a transitional way, a middle passage, to mature cultural change, as Sartre saw it? Or was their way a rejection altogether of the way the West sees revolution? Does poetry and art, committed and uncommitted, find it’s way into the revolution, not as transparent purveyors of meaning, as Sartre saw, but as a vanguard, as a front line to communicate with everyone, educated and uneducated? The people who most insist on transparency to the poor and the uneducated seem to be the wealthy and educated. Those who write poetry and share it with the masses know that something that no one else does. There was no reason that poetry should bring about a revolution in Haiti. Or in Martinique. But it did, in part. Poetry, an uncommitted literature to Sartre, played its part so that other aspects of society could play theirs. And this is what I content poetry should do. All arts have their function, just as all social and political groups do. When they work together to what they can, each in their own way, each doing what they can, then we can make change.


Adorno, Theodor. On Commitment. Trans. Francis McDonagh.

Conteh-Morgan, John. “The Other Avant-Garde: The Theatre of Radical Aesthetics and the Poetics and Politics of Performance in Contemporary Africa,” Not the Other Avant-Garde, James M. Harding and John Rouse, eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.

Depestre, Rene. An Interview with Aimé Césaire. London: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Elam, Jr., Harry. “The TDR Black Theatre Issue: Refiguring the Avant-Garde,” Not the Other Avant-Garde, James M. Harding and John Rouse, eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.

Fiebach, Joachim. “Avant-Garde and Performance Cultures in Africa,” Not the Other Avant-Garde, James M. Harding and John Rouse, eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.

Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Harding, James M. and John Rouse, eds. Not the Other Avant-Garde: The Transnational Foundations of Avant-Garde Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006. Accessed May 3, 2009.

Noland, Carrie. “Red Front Black Front: Aime Cesaire and the Affaire Aragon.” Diacritics, Spring, 2006.

Polizzotti, Mark. Revolution of the Mind: The Life of Andre Breton. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997.

Sartre, John-Paul. What Is Literature and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Zamir, Shamoon. “An Interview with Ishmael Reed” Callaloo, 17:4, 1994, 1131-1157.

[1] Adorno, On Commitment, p. 9

[2] Sartre, What Is Writing, p. 35-36

[3] Sartre, What Is Writing, p. 35-36

[4] Adorno, On Commitment, p. 5

[5] Adorno, On Commitment, p. 5

[6] Adorno, On Commitment, p. 4

[7] Sartre, What is Writing, pg. 70

[8] Sartre does talk about other groups here, mainly being those who are illiterate and thus unable to read the work, and those who are simply indifferent, such as Europeans who presumably have no understanding at all of the situation, I have decided to not these in the discussion of the work, as they are not potential readers at all.

[9] Adorno, On Commitment, p. 10

[10] Sartre, What is Writing, p. 11.

[11] Sartre, What is Writing, p. 12

[12] Sartre, What is Writing, p. 28.

[13] Sartre, What is Writing, pg, 28.

[14] Sartre, What Is Writing, p. 32

[15] Adorno, On Commitment, p, 9

[16] Adorno, On Commitment, p. 2

[17] Adorno, On Commitment, p. 3

[18] Aime Cesaire, Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natural, cited on

[19] Sartre, What Is Literature, p. 154

[20] Ungar, from What is Literature, p; 13

[21] An Interview with Aime Cesaire, p. 77

[22] An Interview with Aime Cesaire, p. 68

[23] An Interview with Aime Cesaire, p. 68

[24] Polizotti, Revolution of the Mind, p. 531

[25] Polizotti, Revolution of the Mind, p. 532

[26] Nolan, Aime Cesaire and the Affaire Aragon, p. 65

[27] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 40

[28] Neal, Malcolm X: An Autobiography, quoted in Gates, p. 1

[29] Gates, The Signifying Monkey, 6

[30] Gates, The Signifying Monkey, 6

[31] Gates, The Signifying Monkey, 8

[32] Foebach, Avant-Garde and Performance Cultures in Africa, p. 69

[33]Elam, TDR: The Black Issue, p. 43

[34] Ishmael Reed, p. 1137

[35] Conteh-Morgan, The Other Avant-Garde: The Theatre of Radical Aesthetic and the Poetics and Politics of Contemporary Africa, p. 109

[36] Conteh-Morgan, The Other Avant-Garde: The Theatre of Radical Aesthetic and the Poetics and Politics of Contemporary Africa, p. 111

[37] Conteh-Morgan, The Other Avant-Garde: The Theatre of Radical Aesthetic and the Poetics and Politics of Contemporary Africa, p. 111

[38] Harding and Rouse, Not the Other Avant-Garde, p. 4

[39] Elam, The TDR Black Theatre Issue: Rethinking the Avant Garde, p. 44


Anonymous said...

very interesting thank you! also a good clarification of adorno/sartre, their density

Anonymous said...

Thanks this was very very helpful.