Journal of Surrealism and the Americas, Vol 2, No 1 (2008)

Surrealist Visions of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and the Legacy of Colonialism: the Good, the (Revalued) Bad, and the Ugly

Keith Jordan


Comparison of the literary and artistic uses and images of pre-Columbian Mexican and Maya cultures across Surrealist authors and artists reveals both their indebtedness to persistent European stereotypes of Native American societies originating in the early colonial period and their differing positions within and manipulations of a basic binary in such stereotypes between the demonic barbarian and the Noble Savage. Bataille draws upon the language, emphases, and some of the sources of the demonic model to create his picture of the Aztecs, but inverts the original negative valuation placed on this vision in accordance with his celebration of the base. Artaud seems to follow a variant of the utopian trope shaped by late 19th-century and early 20th century European occultism, including the Traditionalism of Rene Guenon, in envisioning ancient Mexican myths as enshrining the same metaphysical truths as Western and Asian mystical literature, and as a source of spiritual renewal to a European civilization desiccated by rationalism. Breton, in his literary production following his 1938 journey to Mexico, colors a romanticized and essentialist view of Mexican culture past and present with both the psychoanalytic primitivism characteristic of orthodox Surrealist ethnographies and with political hopes related to contemporary historical events and to political variants of the Mexican indigenismo of the time. After the death of Trotsky and triumph of fascism in Europe, members of the Surrealist movement turned increasingly to myth and mysticism, and this is reflected in their adoption of stances toward ancient Mexico in the 1940s and after that approach Artaud’s in their emphasis on the mystical. The work of Wolfgang Paalen represents a paradoxical combination of awareness of the pitfalls of primitivism combined with a tendency towards an idealizing vision of Native American cultures. These variations in the deployment of traditional tropes in Surrealist visions of the pre-Columbian are situated in their specific contemporary social, political, and biographical contexts.

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