1948 Refus Global by Paul-Emile Borduas (1905-1960)

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August 9, 1948 We are the offspring of modest French-Canadian families, working-class or lower-middle-class, who, ever since their arrival from the Old Country, have always remained French and Catholic through resistance to the Conquest, through arbitrary attachment to the past, by choice and sentimental pride, and out of sheer necessity.

We are the settlers who, ever since 1760, have been trapped in the fortress of fear - that old refuge of the vanquished - and there abandoned. Our leaders set sail to sell themselves to a higher bidder, a practice they have continued to follow at every opportunity.

We are a small people sheltering under the wing of the clergy - the only remaining repository of faith, knowledge, truth, and national wealth; isolated from the universal progress of thought with all its pitfalls and perils, and raised (since complete ignorance was impossible) on well-meaning but grossly distorted accounts of the great historical facts.

We are a small people, the product of a Jansenist colony, isolated, defeated, left a powerless prey to all those invading congregations from France and Navarre that were eager to perpetuate in this holy realm of fear (fear- is-the-mother-of-wisdom!) the blessings and prestige of a Catholic religion that was being scorned in Europe. Heirs of papal authority, mechanical, brooking no opposition, past masters of obscurantist methods, our educational institutions had, from that time on, absolute control over a world of warped memories, stagnant minds, and crooked intentions.

We are a small people, who yet grew and multiplied in number, if not in spirit, here in the north of this huge American continent; and our bodies were young and our hearts of gold, but our minds remained primitive, with their sterile obsession about Europe's past glories, while the concrete achievements of our own oppressed people were ignored.

It seemed as if there were no future for us. But wars and revolutions in the outside world broke the spell, shattered the mental block. Irreparable cracks began to appear in the fortress walls. Political rivalries became bitterly entrenched, and the clergy unexpectedly made mistakes. Then came rebellions, followed by a few executions, and the first bitter cases of rift between the clergy and a few of the faithful. Slowly the breach widened, then narrowed, then once again grew wider.

Foreign travel became more common, with Paris as the centre of attraction. But the distance being almost prohibitive, and the city too active for our timid souls, the trip was often no more than an opportunity for a holiday spent in improving a retarded sexual education or in acquiring, through the prestige of a long stay in France, the necessary authority whereby better to exploit the masses on one's return home. With a very few exceptions. the behaviour of members (travelled or not) of our medical profession, for instance, tends to be scandalous (how- else- is- one- to- finance- these- long- years- of- study?).

Revolutionary publications, if they ever attracted any attention at all, were considered as the virulent outpourings of a group of eccentrics. With our usual lack of discernment we condemned such publications as devoid of any academic merit.

Travel was also, at times, an unhoped-for opportunity for a new awakening. Minds were growing restless, and everywhere the reading of forbidden books brought a little hope and soothing comfort.

Our minds were enlightened by the poètes maudits who, far from being monsters of evil, dared to give loud and clear expression to those feelings that had always been shamefully smothered and repressed by the most wretched among us, in their terror of being swallowed up alive. New vistas were opened to us by those literary innovators who were the first to challenge the torments of the soul, the moral turpitude of modern life. How stirring was the accuracy, the freshness of their answers, and how different from the hackneyed old lectures delivered in Quebec and in seminaries the world over.

We began to aspire to greater expectations.

We giddily watched the worn and tattered boundaries of our old horizons vanishing into space. Instead of the humiliation of perpetual slavery there came new pride in the knowledge that freedom could be won.

To hell with Church blessings and parochial life! They had been repaid a hundredfold for what they originally granted. We had our first burning contact with the brotherhood of man to which Christianity had barred the door. And fear in all its facets no longer ruled the land. Its facets were legion, and in an attempt to expel them from memory, I shall enumerate them: fear of prejudice - fear of public opinion, of persecution, of general disapproval fear of being abandoned by God and by a society that invariably leaves us to our lonely fate fear of oneself, of one's brothers, of poverty fear of the established order - fear of absurd laws fear of new acquaintances fear of the irrational fear of needs to be met fear of opening the floodgates of our faith in man - fear of the society of the future fear of the unsettling Experience of love deadly fear - holy fear paralysing fear: so many links to our chains Gone were the days of debilitating fear as we entered the era of anguish. It would take an iron constitution to remain indifferent to the sadness of those who grimly assume an artificial gaiety, of the psychological reactions to the refinements of cruelty that are but the transparent cellophane wrappings to our current anguished despair. (How can one stop screaming upon reading the account of that horrible collection of lampshades pieced together out of tattooed skin stripped from the flesh of wretched prisoners on the request of some elegant lady; how can one stifle one's groans at the long list of concentration-camp tortures; how can one stop one's blood from curdling at the description of those Spanish prison cells, those meaningless reprisals, those cold-blooded acts of vengeance?) How can one fail to shudder at the cruel lucidity of science? And now, after the reign of overpowering mental anguish, comes the reign of nausea. We have been sickened by man's apparent inaptitude to remedy such evils, by the futility of our efforts, by the shattered vanity of our past hopes. For centuries the many sources of poetic inspiration have been doomed to total failure in a society that tossed them overboard, and then tried to retrieve them and force them into the mould of integration, of false assimilation. For centuries lusty, seething revolutions have been crushed after one brief moment of delirious hope during their fatal fall: the French revolutions - the Russian Revolution - the Spanish Revolution - all ended in international confusion, despite the vain hopes of countless simple souls throughout the world. There again, fatality was stronger than generosity.

It is nauseating that fat rewards should be handed out to practitioners of gross cruelty, to liars, to forgers. to those who manufacture abortive projects, to the plotters of intrigue, to the openly self-seeking, to the false counsellors of humanity, to those who pollute the fountain of life. It is nauseating to realize our own cowardice, our helplessness, our weakness, our bewilderment. Our ill-starred loves....

And the constant cherishing of vain delusions rate than enigmatic realities.

Where is the cause for man's self-imposed efficacy for evil to be found, if not in our stubborn purpose to defend civilization that ordains the destinies of our leading nations?

The United States, Russia, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain: all of them heirs to the same Ten Commandments, to the same gospel.

The religion of Christ has dominated the world. See what has been made of it: a communal faith exploited for the satisfaction of personal ambitions.

Abolish the individual thirst for competition, natural I riches, prestige, authority, and these countries will be in perfect agreement. But whichever of them were to gain total supremacy over the world, the general result would be the same.

Christian civilization has reached the end of its tether. The next world war will cause its total collapse, when international competition is no longer possible.

Its moribund condition will strike those who are still blind to it. The least sensitive natures will be nauseated at the sight of the gangrene that has been setting in since the fourteenth century. The despicable way they have been exploited so effectively, for so many centuries and at the cost of life's most precious values, will at last become obvious to its countless victims, to all of its submissive slaves who, the more wretched they were, the more they strove to defend it. But there will be an end to torture.

The downfall of Christianity will drag down with it all the people and all the classes that it has influenced, from the first to the last, from the highest to the lowest. The depth of its disgrace will be equal to the height of its success in the thirteenth century. In the thirteenth century, once man's spiritual awareness of his relations with the universe had been allowed to develop within permissible limits, intuition gave way to speculation. Gradually the act of faith was replaced by the calculated act. Exploitation fed on the very heart of religion by turning to its own advantage the limitations of man's reasoning powers; by a rational use of the holy texts for the maintenance of its easily-won supremacy. This systematic exploitation spread slowly to all levels of social activity, expecting maximum returns for its investment. Faith sought refuge in the heart of the populace and became their last hope, their only consolation. But there, too, hope began to fade. Among the learned the science of mathematics took over from the outmoded tradition of metaphysical speculation. The process of observation followed that of transfiguration.

Method paved the way toward the elimination of restrictions. Decadence became convivial and necessary, prompting the advent of agile machines moving at frightening speeds, enabling us to harness our riotous rivers pending the day when the planet will blow itself up. Our scientific instruments are wonderful devices for the study and control of size, speed, noise, weight, or length. We have unlocked all the gates of the world with our rational thinking; but it is a world where we are no longer united. The growing chasm between spiritual and rational powers is stretched almost to breaking-point.

Through systematically controlled material progress - the privilege of the affluent - we were able, with the help of the Church (and later without it), to secure political progress; but we have not been able to renew our basic sensibility, our subconscious impulses; nor have we been capable of seizing our only chance of emancipation from the grip of Christianity by allowing for a free development of man's true feelings. Society was born through faith, but will perish through reason: A DELIBERATE PROCESS. The fatal disintegration of collective moral strength into strictly individual self-indulgence has lined the formidable frame of abstract knowledge with a patchwork quilt under which society is snuggling in concealment for a leisurely feasting on its ill-gained prize. It required the last two wars to achieve this absurd result. The horror of the third war will be decisive. We are on the brink of a D-day of total sacrifice. The European rat-race has already started across the Atlantic. But events will catch up with the greedy, the gluttonous, the sybarites, the unperturbed, the blind, the deaf. They will be swallowed up mercilessly. And a new collective hope will dawn. We must make ready to meet it with exceptional clear-sightedness, anonymously bound together by a renewed faith in the future, faith in a common future.

The magical harvest magically reaped from the field of the Unknown lies ready for use. All the true poets have worked at gathering it in. Its powers of transformation are as great as the violent reactions it originally provoked, and as remarkable as its later unavailability (after the more than two centuries, there is not a single copy of Sade to be found in our bookshops; Isidore Ducasse, dead for over a century, a century of revolution and slaughter, is still, despite our having become inured to filth and corruption, too powerful for the queasy contemporary conscience). All the elements of this treasure as yet remain inaccessible to our present-day society. Every precious part of it will be preserved intact for future use. It was built up with spontaneous enthusiasm, in spite of, and outside, the framework of civilization. And its social effects will only be felt once society's present needs are recognized. Meanwhile our duty is plain.

The ways of society must be abandoned once and for all; we must free ourselves from its utilitarian spirit. We must not tolerate our mental or physical faculties' being wittingly left undeveloped. We must refuse to close our eyes to vice, to deceit perpetrated under the cloak of imparted knowledge, of services rendered, of payment due. We must refuse to be trapped within the walls of the common mould - a strong citadel, but easy enough to escape. We must avoid silence (do with us what you will, but hear us you must), avoid fame, avoid privileges (except that of being heeded) - avoid them all as the stigma of evil, indifference, servility. We must refuse to serve, or to be used for, such despicable ends. We must avoid DELIBERATE DESIGN as the harmful weapon of REASON. Down with them both! Back they go! MAKE WAY FOR MAGIC! MAKE WAY FOR OBJECTIVE MYSTERY! MAKE WAY FOR LOVE! MAKE WAY FOR WHAT IS NEEDED! We accept full responsibility for the consequences of our total refusal. Self-interested plans are nothing but the still-born product of their author. While passionate action is animated with a life of its own. We shall gladly take full responsibility for the future. Deliberate, rational effort can only fashion the present from the ashes of the past. Our passions must necessarily, spontaneously, unpredictably forge the future. The past must be acknowledged at birth - but it is far from sacred. We have paid our debt to the past.

It is naive and unsound to consider famous men and events in history as being endowed with a special quality unknown to us today. Indeed, such quality is automatically achieved when man follows his innermost inclinations; it is achieved when man recognizes his new role in a new world. This is true for any man, at any time. The past must no longer be used as an anvil for beating out the present and the future. All we need of the past is what can be put to use for the present. A better tomorrow will emerge imperceptibly from the present. We need not worry about the future until we come to it. The Final Squaring of Accounts The social establishment resents our dedication to our cause, our uninhibited expression of concern, our going to extremes, as an insult to their indolence, their smugness, their love of gracious living (the meaning of a rich, generous life, full of hope and love, has been lost).

Friends of the prevailing political system suspect us of being promoters of the "Revolution." Friends of the "Revolution" suspect us of being downright rebels: ..... "we protest against the established order of things, but reform is our sole objective, not complete change." However tactfully it may be worded, we believe we understand what they are getting at. It is all a matter of class. It is being conjectured that we are naively trying to "change" society by substituting other, similar men for those currently in power. If that were the case, then why not keep the present ones? Because they are not of the same class! As if a difference in class implied a difference in civilization, a difference in aspirations, a difference in expectations! They dedicate themselves, at a fixed salary plus a cost-of-living allowance, to organizing the proletariat; they are absolutely right. The only trouble is that once they have strengthened their positions, they will want to I add to their slender incomes, and, at the expense of that self-same proletariat, they will always be demanding

I more and more, ever and always in the same manner, brooking no rebuttal. Nevertheless, we recognize that they follow a time-honoured tradition. Salvation can only come after an unbearable exploitation. These men will be the excess. They will inevitably become so without anyone's assistance. Their plunder will be plentiful. We shall want none of it. That is what our "guilty abstention" will consist in. We leave the premeditated carnage to you (premeditated like everything else that belongs to complacent decadence). As for us, give us spirited action, and the full responsibility of our total refusal. (We cannot help the fact that various social classes have superseded each other at government level without any of them being able to resist the compelling pull of decadence. We cannot help the fact that history teaches that only through the full development of our faculties, and then through the complete renewal of our sources of emotional inspiration, can we ever hope to break the deadlock and make way for the eager passage of a new born civilization.) All those who hold power or are struggling for it would be quite happy to grant our every wish, if only we were willing to confine our activities to the cramping limitations of their cunning directives. Success will be ours if we close our eyes, stop up our ears, roll up our sleeves, and fling ourselves pell-mell into the fray. We prefer our cynicism to be spontaneous and without malice.

Kindly souls are apt to laugh at the lack of financial success of joint exhibitions of our work. It gives them a feeling of satisfaction to think they were the first to be aware of its small market-value. If we do hold countless exhibitions, it is not with the naive hope of becoming rich. We know that there is a world of difference between us and the wealthy, who are bound to suffer something of a shock from their contact with us.

It is only through misunderstanding that such sales have, in the past, brought in big profits. We hope this text will avoid any such misunderstandings in the future. If we work with such feverish enthusiasm, it is because we feel a pressing need for unity. Unity is the road to success. Yesterday we stood alone and irresolute. Today we form a group with strong, steady, and already far-reaching ramifications. We must also share the glorious responsibility of preserving the valuable treasure that history has bequeathed to us. Its tangible values must constantly be reinterpreted, be compared and considered anew. Such interpretation is an exacting, abstract process that requires the creative medium of action. This treasure is the poetic source of supply, the fountain of youth for our creative impulses that will inspire the generations of the future. It must be ADAPTED to suit circumstances if it is to serve its rightful purpose. We urge all of those who are moved by the spirit of adventure to join us. Within a foreseeable future, man will be able to develop, untrammelled, his own individual skills, through impassioned, impulsive action and glorious independence. Meanwhile we must work without respite, hand in hand with those who long for a better life; together we must persevere, regardless of praise or persecution, toward the joyful fulfilment of our fierce desire for freedom.

Paul-Emile BORDUAS Magdeleine ARBOUR, Marcel BARBEAU, Bruno CORMIER, Claude GAUVREAU, Pierre GAUVREAU, Muriel GUILBAULT, Marcelle FERRON-HAMELIN, Fernand LEDUC, Thérèse LEDUC, Jean-Paul MOUSSEAU, Maurice PERRON, Louise RENAUD, Françoise RIOPELLE, Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, Françoise SULL1VAN.

Cite Article :

Source: French-Canadian Nationalism: An Anthology (1969), edited by Ramsay Cook

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