Home pageTHE SURRE(GION)ALIST MANIFESTOChapter 2.- The Politics of the Imagination
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-4- Words from Green Lips

We sometimes look to the past for hints of what this awakening might mean. For example, we discover that in 1871 the people of Paris awoke to a rather radically utopian idea. They decided to abolish capitalism and the state. They undertook the creation of a free municipality, which they called the Paris Commune. The Commune is one of the most numinous episodes in the history of revolution, and in the history of the imagination. In its few short weeks of existence, it opened up possibilities that remain an inspiration well over a century later: possibilities of freedom, of justice, of popular participation, of social creation. While this experiment was brutally crushed by the forces of reaction, it lives on in the radical imagination.

I can hardly mention the Commune without remarking that as I was first writing these words Chinese students were in the process of carrying on the tradition of the radical imagination, fashioning images of a Goddess of Democracy, and creating what Premier Li Peng called "an anarchic state." My reaction at the time was to remark as follows: "The American news media harp on the fact that the students are demanding ’democracy.’ Unfortunately, in the context of American ideological discourse, ’demand for democracy’ is immediately translated into ’Big Mac Attack.’ Though the media have shown students demonstrating for democracy, they have never, so far as I know, identified the song that these democratic students sing endlessly. It’s called the ’Internationale’—and it is not about Big Macs. Actually, its more likely that their nasty leaders, rather than the students, will usher in the invasion of Big Macs—though they’ll probably rename them something like Deng-Burgers. (Hold the Mao.)"

Their singing of the "Internationale" now takes on a greater significance. That great anthem, written in the week following the crushing of the Commune, commemorates its triumph and tragedy. Thus the students sang of their ideals of freedom and justice, and at the same time foreshadowed their own fate. Their rulers saw the need for a military invasion to protect the long-term economistic one on which their power depends.

The Commune lives on in many senses.

One of the most remarkable figures associated with the Commune was a young poet named Arthur Rimbaud, whose work (all of which he completed between the ages of 16 and 19) was a truly astounding expression of the revolutionary imagination. In one of his most delirious poems he ironically juxtaposes the banal rhetoric of advertising, the yearnings of desire, and the ekstasis of utopian imagination:

[/For sale-/]
[|Priceless bodies, beyond race or world or sex
or lineage!
Riches in ubiquitous flood!
Unrestricted sale of diamonds!|]
[/For sale –/]
[|Anarchy for the masses;
Wild satisfaction for knowing amateurs;
Atrocious death for the faithful and for lovers!|]
[/For sale –/]
[|Homesteads and migrations, sports,
Enchantment and perfect comfort, and the noise,
the movement and the future they entail. [1]|]

Forgive me for the prosaic translation, but he’s saying that Coke is not the Real Thing, and what is you won’t get with money. Echoes of Rimbaud can be heard in the words of all the movements of the revolutionary utopian imagination over the past century. In the surrealists, the situationists, and even in the most radical of the post¬structuralists today. Whom or what will we echo? (Or are we capable only of videotaping and xeroxing?) Rimbaud is reported to have written a revolutionary constitution inspired by the Commune, proposing a system of direct self-rule, reminiscent of the Athenian polis, in which free and equal citizens would gather to deliberate and determine democratically the fate of the community. He thus wished to recreate the public space of the Polis, but to populate it not with rational Greek citizens but with mad Parisian anarchists.

I mention Rimbaud, this "great anarchist," as he was called by Walter Benjamin, for his fusing of the revolutionary imagination with revolutionary politics. I also mention him and the Commune because it allows me to close with an excerpt from a poem about that Commune. A poem that brings us back to our topic of "Green" and the politics of the imagination. I quote from Vermersch’s "Les Incendiaires" (1871):

Today, in Paris, on the cobblestones
They trample our dead underfoot;
The fathers machine-gunned, the mothers disappeared,
In their blood-stained cradles,
The orphans, reaching out their hands,
Plead for mercy
From the triumphant assassins!
What threat for the future is held
In the hands of those little children;
What words will some day be spoken through the green lips
Of those bloodied corpses . . . [2]
GIF - 60 kb
Paris Commune

This is our question. In this noisy world, how will they speak, the green lips of these bloodied corpses?

Next Chapter 3: The Dao of Capitalism or "Going with the (Cash-) Flow"


[1] Arthur Rimbaud, ARTHUR RIMBAUD: COMPLETE WORKS. (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 238.

[2] Vermersch, "Les Incendiaires" in Les Temps Nouveaux, No. 39 (1910)

Exquisite Corpse, 2003 Copyright © 2007 Max Cafard.
This section's articles
  1. -1- The Imagination in Power
    7 February 2007

  2. -2- Does Money Grow on Trees?
    7 February 2007

  3. -3- In a Bad Place
    7 February 2007

  4. -4- Words from Green Lips
    7 February 2007