Purple Magazine
— The Mexico Issue #36 F/W 2021

cover #1 robert nava


artwork by ROBERT NAVA

In 1938, in a brilliant, inspired, hallucinatory, and volup­tuous article, André Breton set down his “Memory of Mexico,” following a visit to Leon Trotsky that same year. His prose is flowing and lyrical, less tightly corseted than usual. I believe the article was published in the magazine Minotaure, illustrated with photographs by Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Breton’s trip to Mexico — in the company of Jacqueline Lamba, mother of his daughter Aube and the inspiration for his novel Mad Love — was the result of a short-lived reconciliation with Antonin Artaud. I have just reread A Voyage to Land of the Tarahumara, and the contrast between Artaud’s madly precise dryness and the decadent velvet of Breton’s recollections casts this imaginary, twice-dreamt Mexico into stark relief. On one side is the sun and sacrifice; on the other, the Surrealist church and half-darkness.

In 1937, Artaud and Breton, who had fallen out with each other at the time of the Second Manifesto [of Surrealism], met again by accident in a café. Artaud took the first step and offered Breton, whom he had never ceased to like, a few words about his experiences with peyote in the land of the Tarahumara Indians. The conversation made a lasting impression on Breton. Spurred by his split from the French Communist Party and his long-standing admiration for Trotsky — who had been expelled from France and offered refuge by Diego Rivera in Mexico — Breton asked Saint-John Perse, then Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to arrange a lecture tour on French literature for him.

Though those were glorious years for Breton, as usual he was penniless: [his earnings from the] Galerie Gradiva were barely enough to live on, as were the royalties for Mad Love, which had sold 544 copies in three years (compared with 3,000 for Nadja). The lecture series would allow him to live in Mexico for four months. Feeling highly anxious — he hated to travel and had compared foreign countries to a “stage set” — he embarked with Jacqueline on the Orinoco at Cherbourg on April 2, 1938, bound for Veracruz.

The couple left behind their two-year-old daughter, who could not believe that “Ada” and “Zacline,” as she called them, were gone. For a time, she suspected that they were hiding in the thicket of André Masson’s garden in Lyons-la-Forêt. The arrival in Veracruz was a disaster: on the quay, Breton found an embassy employee who informed him that no arrangements had been made for their lodgings or expenses. Furious, Breton — who, according to his wife’s later remarks, had only a few francs in his pocket — decided to return to France that very evening. The painter Diego Rivera came to the rescue, offering them a place to stay and announcing that Trotsky was expecting them the next morning at the Blue House in Coyoacán, which Frida Kahlo had lent him. The meeting was cordial, even though Frida, whom Breton greatly admired, didn’t display a great deal of reciprocity. According to Mark Polizzotti, Breton’s American biographer, she found him “pompous, arrogant, and terribly intellectual, and nicknamed him ‘the old cockroach.’” It should be noted that Anaïs Nin, who would sing the praises of Acapulco 10 years later, held the same opinion as Frida with regard to Breton. No sooner had Breton settled in than he decided that Mexico was “the Surrealist country par excellence.”

Why did Mexico generate such enthusiasm in these two leading French sensibilities, soon to be joined by a third poet, Benjamin Péret, who would spend the war years there? In Artaud’s case, the answer was clear. As someone who viewed artistic engagement as a form of martyrdom, he was attracted by Aztec shamanism, peyote, indigenous culture, and an initiation into the strange rites of the Tarahumara (shamanism mixed with scraps of Jesuit teachings). Breton confessed that it was the engraved illustrations of a now forgotten novel, Costal l’Indien by Gabriel Ferry (Louis de Bellemare), that first drew him to Mexico as a teenager.

Breton’s taste for pre-Columbian art is well established. His short-lived reunion with Artaud also played a role, but the decisive attractions of Mexico were the presence of Trotsky and the revolutionary past of Pancho Villa’s Mexico. The regime in power at the time, under President Lázaro Cárdenas, favored revolutionary artists like  [David Alfaro] Siqueiros and Rivera — the latter held such a pre-eminent place in the eyes of the authorities that he was able single-handedly to convince Cárdenas to offer asylum to comrade Trotsky, whose life was threatened by Stalin’s secret police.

Along with the logic of revolution, Breton harbored a secret mysticism or “anxiety” that the Marxist Trotsky immediately picked up on and criticized. Imaginary Mexico is a place “where the spirit blows,” in the words of Maurice Barrès, a figure of the French right and poet of the dead whose influence on the Surrealists, starting with [Louis] Aragon, was so profound and so neglected by modern commentators. Anxious souls (starting with the Aztecs) are attracted to Mexico. What attracts them are the dead.

Malcolm Lowry set the opening scene of one of the most inspired modern novels, Under the Volcano, one year later, on the Day of the Dead, November 2, 1939, in Quauhnahuac (based on the city of Cuernavaca). Lowry, who was steeped in Judeo-Christian esotericism, said he had conceived of his novel as a “drunken divine comedy.” One of the most remarkable passages in Lowry’s story of a descent into hell — its apogee or rather its abyss — tells of the death of Consul Geoffrey Firmin, killed at the hands of a bandit in a wretched cantina: “He could feel life slivering out of him like liver, ebbing into the tenderness of the grass.”

Artaud, in “The Rites of the Kings of Atlantis,” an article translated into Spanish for a Mexican newspaper, then lost in its original version and later rendered back into French by Marie Dézon and Philippe Sollers, describes the sacrifice of a bull by Tarahumara shamans: “The bull’s grimace of pain as the Indian’s knife tore its innards is hard to forget.” It is known that the animal sacrifices of antiquity (Artaud believes he has found the trace of this very same sacrifice in a famous passage of Plato’s Critias that speaks of Atlantis) were probably derived from ancient rites in which the victim of the knife was human.

On November 8, 1519, the Aztec emperor Moctezuma, greeting the conquistador Hernán Cortés in Mexico-Tenochtitlán and taking him for the god Quetzalcoatl because of his red hair and pale skin, said to him: “O Lord, welcome. You have come to your city and your people. Rest now, and take possession of your palace.” Sitting on a golden throne, Cortés spoke to his host of Adam and Eve, and of Jesus, who died to save mankind. Then he expressed a desire to visit the Huey Teocalli or Templo Mayor. When the Spaniards had climbed the pyramid’s 114 steps, they discovered the astonishing spectacle of gods constellated with gold and turquoise and smeared with blood, and fires that burned with human hearts ripped out with obsidian knives.

From these sinister heights, as Cortés wrote to Charles V, they saw before them a city of 700,000 inhabitants, as vast as the Rome of Aurelian. We know the rest of the story: plunder and massacre at the hands of a small band of determined raiders. Moctezuma fallen, Mexico laid waste, and the Aztec empire transferred to Cortés by notarial act.

Cortés, a Spanish Catholic with readily macabre taste, adapted marvelously well to the local flavor of old bloodthirsty beliefs. The myth of imaginary Mexico remains accented with the intermixture of the skull masks of Mictecacihuatl and the memento mori of Valdés Leal. There isn’t a single tourist today who leaves Mexico without a toy in the shape of death’s triumphal chariot or some other skeletal trinket. The films of John Huston, Sam Peckinpah, and Orson Welles testify to the persistence of this myth, as do the novels of James Ellroy — one comes to Mexico to be assassinated. It’s true that the cartels and narco-Satanists have recently done their best to regild its altars. Two years after Breton’s visit, Trotsky was assassinated with an ice pick, and 10 years later in Mexico, the junkie William Burroughs killed his wife Joan with a bullet to the head.

Let me return to Breton’s article, “Memory of Mexico,” which was reprinted in the collection The Key to the Fields. Here is the opening: “Red land, virgin land made fertile by the noblest blood, land where life is worthless, land — like the agave stretching as far as the eye can see, which expresses it best — always ready to consume itself in a flower of desire and danger.” Breton, the author of The White-Haired Revolver, is, of course, fascinated by the armed men he saw looming out from behind every cactus. The excursions in American cars in the company of Rivera, Trotsky, and his bodyguards must have been quite picturesque. All the more so since Trotsky wasn’t always easy to get along with, and his character often clashed with Breton’s. Jacqueline once told Arturo Schwarz the story of a violent dispute about a dog that Trotsky felt had “human” eyes. Nonsense, said Breton, who violently lost his temper and demanded to change cars. At the time, the two of them were supposed to be drafting a manifesto for independent art (a critique of socialist realism), but Breton, who was in charge of writing it, struggled to work under the furious eyes of Trotsky, who had the ability to dictate three texts at once. Jacqueline says that they appreciated each other nonetheless and shared a mutual wonder for nature. This is another element of imaginary Mexico — the landscape — framed in Lowry’s lyrical descriptions. It is impossible to forget the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, or the first chapter’s thunderstorm. In Breton’s “Memory of Mexico” and in Artaud’s Tarahumara, too, the grandeur of natural sites takes on a magical quality. Artaud sees men’s tortured bodies appear in the forms of the rocks: “Between the mountain and myself… I cannot say which was haunted, but in my voyage across the mountain I saw an optical miracle of this kind occur at least once a day.” Himself a tortured body, Artaud became the Sierra Tarahumara.

Breton — more inspired by the Symbolists and Decadents, an admirer of [Joris-Karl] Huysmans and Jean Lorrain — devotes the second half of his report to the description of a ruined palace discovered by chance in Mexico. This passage, remarkable in every respect, holds a singular place in Breton’s fairly difficult œuvre. It is a piece that seems to have sprung from a single motion, a classical text, in the vein of Baudelaire’s translations of Thomas De Quincey. “The palace of fate: isn’t that where I found myself on several occasions in Guadalajara, in the very center of the city?” This decrepit palace — with its “dream stairs” ravaged by “some sort of parasitic disease of the most corrosive kind” and its walled-up room that contains the embalmed body of its former mistress, while the current master of the house, a lunatic, wanders the terraces, and the servants, unpaid for years, sell fragments of the house to visitors — seems to me the emblem of Mexico. It is the double of the ruined palace of Maximilian that Lowry writes of and that a visitor following in the footsteps of the consul and his wife, Yvonne, describes in nearly the same terms as the palace of fate seen by Breton, calling it, in Lowry’s words, “the place where love had once brooded.”

Broken love, entanglements of a savage nature, violent death, and loss and sacrifice are to be found in many literary evocations of Mexico. Burroughs would give the coldest version of them in Queer, one of his best books. In a preface added in 1985, he generalized in his droll, morose style: “Mexico was basically an Oriental culture that reflected 2,000 years of disease and poverty and degradation and stupidity and slavery and brutality and psychic and physical terrorism. It was sinister and gloomy and chaotic, with the special chaos of a dream.” And then he comes to speak of Joan’s death: “I get exactly the same feeling to an almost unbearable degree as I read the manuscript of Queer. The event toward which Lee feels himself inexorably driven is the death of his wife by his own hand … a dead hand waiting to slip over his like a glove. So, a smog of menace and evil rises from the pages…” A few years after Artaud’s fury and Breton’s anxious prose and Lowry’s funereal opera, we have arrived at James Ellroy’s poisoned Mexico.

Yvonne was a lost dream; Joan, a sad junkie… And behind them, like a change of theatrical scenery, the wild Mexico of the Sierra and of volcanos slips away and leaves instead the vast and dangerous city. The themes remain fundamentally the same… Cortés’s influence on European and North American eyes isn’t gone yet. And in this cracked mirror smeared with blood, we cannot tell if it is the conquistadors’ crimes or the Aztecs’ fascination with human sacrifice that now make an entrance upon the stage.



[Table of contents]

The Mexico Issue #36 F/W 2021

Subscribe to our newsletter