(Total Refusal) by Paul-Emile Borduas
of modest French Canadian families, labourers or petit-bourgeois,
from our arrival on this soil up to the present day kept
French and Catholic by resistance to the conqueror, by
an irrational attachment to the past, by self-indulgence
and sentimental pride and other compulsions.
A colony trapped
and abandoned as long ago as 1760 beneath unscalable walls
of fear (familiar refuge of the vanquished) -- its leaders
taking to sea or selling themselves to the conqueror,
as always when the time is ripe.
A little people,
huddled to the skirts of a priesthood viewed as sole trustee
of faith, knowledge, truth and national wealth, shielded
from the broader evolution of thought as too risky and
dangerous and educated misguidedly, if without ill intent,
in distortions of the facts of history, when complete
ignorance was impracticable.
A little people,
grown from a Jansenist colony, isolated and cowed; and
defenceless against the horde of clerics of France and
Navarre -- out to perpetuate in this fear-ridden place
(fear-as-the-beginning-of-wisdom!) the prestige and advantages
of a Catholicism despised in Europe. Heirs of a mechanical
papacy, invulnerable to redress, great masters of obscurantism,
their institutes of learning still hold sway through an
exploiting use of memory, static reason, and paralysing
A little people,
that multiplied in generosity of flesh, if not of spirit,
in the north of this immense America, with its sprightly
band of golden-hearted youth and its superficial morality;
spellbound by the annihilating prestige of remembered
European masterpieces, and disdainful of the authentic
creations of its own oppressed.
seems harshly fixed.
foreign wars, disturb the most efficient blockade of the
spirit, however disarming.
slip through, inevitably.
become bitter. Against all prediction, the clergy acts
executions result, and impassioned first ruptures occur
between the church and some of the faithful.
The breach widens,
shrinks, then widens further.
increases. Soon, Paris is the rage. But, too far in time
and space, too volatile for our timorous souls, it is
often only the occasion for time off to complete a retarded
sexual education and to acquire, on the basis of a stay
in France, facile authority for improved exploitation
of the crowd upon return. For example, the conduct of
our doctors, with very few exceptions, is scandalous (after
all, those-long-years-of-study-have-to-be-paid-for, whether
they have travelled or not!).
works, when by chance they come t o hand, seem but the
sour grapes of a few eccentrics. The academics acquire
prestige from our lack of information.
among these travels, some produce awakenings. The normally
unthinkable is found increasingly. Forbidden readings
circulate, spreading solace and hope.
Minds are enlightened
by discovery of the poètes maudits: those who, without
being monsters, dared express loud and clear what the
unhappiest among us stifle quietly within, in shame and
in terror of being overwhelmed. Illumination comes from
the example of these men -- the first to acknowledge contemporary
anxieties, so painful and pathetic -- whose insights prove
of greater value, in their disturbing precision and freshness,
than the interminable litanies charmed in the land of
Quebec, or in all the seminaries of he globe together.
The limits of
our dreams become no longer what they were.
We are dizzied
by the fall of tawdry finery so recently obscuring truth.
The shades of hopeless bondage gives place to pride in
a freedom obtainable by vigorous struggle.
To hell with
the goupillon and the tuque. They have seized back a thousand
times what once they gave.
we attain the burning human brotherhood on which they
have closed the door.
The reign of
hydra-headed fear has ended.
In the wild
hope of effacing its memory, I enumerate:
- fear of facing prejudice
-- fear of public opinion -- of persecutions -- of general
- fear of being alone,
without the God and the society which isolate you anyway;
- fear of oneself --
of one's brother -- of poverty;
- fear of the established
order -- or ridiculous justice;
- fear of new relationships;
- fear of the superrational;
- fear of necessities;
- fear of floodgates
opening on one's faith in man -- on the society of the
- fear of forces able
to release transforming love;
- blue fear -- red
fear -- white fear; links in our shackles.
From the reign
of debilitating fear we pass to that of anguish.
One would have
to be of stone to remain indifferent to the grief of deliberately
feigned gaiety, of psychological reflexes of the cruellest
extravagance: transparent disguises of poignant, present
despair (how is it possible not to cry out on reading
the news of that horrifying collection of lampshades made
of tattoos stripped from unfortunate captives, at the
whim of some elegant woman; not to moan at endless accounts
of torment in the concentration camps; not to chill to
the marrow at descriptions of Spanish prisons, unjustifiable
reprisals and cold-blooded revenge?) How can one not quiver
before the cruel lucidity of science?
anguish is replaced by nausea.
We are sickened
by the apparent inability of man to correct evils, by
the uselessness of our endeavours, by the vanity of our
the bountiful products of poetic activity have been doomed
on the social level; violently rejected by the upper strata
of society, or warped irrevocably by them and falsely
splendid revolutions, their hearts high in hope, have
been brutally suppressed after a moment of delirious optimism
-- scarcely noticeable interruptions in our slighter to
- the French revolutions
- the Russian revolution
- the Spanish revolution
international confusion, despite the wishful thinking
of os many simple souls around the world.
over life, again.
How can one
not be nauseated by the liars, by the forgers, by the
makers of the stillborn objects, by the tricksters, the
obsequious, the opportunistic, the false prophets of humanity,
the polluters of springwater, or by rewards obtained for
By our own cowardice,
impotence, fragility and lack of understanding?
By the disasters
of our loves....
By the constant
preference for cherished illusion over objective mysteries.
Where is the source of all the cursed efficiency which
man imposes on himself, but in his fury to defend a civilization
shaping the destinies of dominant nations?
The United States,
Russia, England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain: sharp-fanged
inheritors of a single decalogue, and identical gospel.
of Christ has dominated the universe. What has been done
with it when sisterhoods become exploiting little sisters?
Remove the motivation
of competition for raw materials, prestige and authority,
and nations might live harmoniously. But grant supremacy
to whom you wish, give world control to whom you please,
and the same deep-rooted patterns will emerge -- although
perhaps with different details.
the end of Christian civilization.
The next world
war will witness its collapse, by destroying any possibility
of international competition.
Its state of
decadence will even strike those eyes that are still closed.
begun int he XIVth century, will nauseate the most insensitive.
exploitation, effective for so many centuries at the cost
of life's most precious qualities, will be finally revealed
to all its victims, docile slaves, the more eager to defend
it as they were made more miserable.
There will be
an end to putrefaction.
will have dragged down in succession all the peoples,
all the classes it has touched, from first to last, from
top to bottom.
It will end
in shame at the inverse of its achievements of the XIIIth
In the XIIIth
century, when the peak of moral evolution had been reached,
intuition gave way to reason: gradually, to preserve a
supremacy which had once been spontaneous, acts of faith
gave place to calculation. Exploitation began in the very
bosom of religion through it s self-interested use of
petrified sentiments and through the rational study of
of reason spread to all society's activities, in response
to demands for maximum production.
refuge in the heart of the crowd, became its only hope
of revenge and ultimate compensation. But there,also,
expectations were dulled.
In high places,
mathematics succeeded obsolete metaphysical speculation.
The spirit of observation succeeded that of transfiguration.
The method hastened
some impending progress in limited fields; it encouraged
the birth of our versatile machines with their vertiginous
speed, it allowed he straight-jacketing of our tumultuous
rivers -- and decadence seemed amiable and necessary,
even if inviting the destruction of the planet. Scientific
instruments brought us unanticipated means to investigating
and regulating what was too small, too quick, too vibrant,
too slow, or too huge for us. Our reason enabled us to
over-run the world, but a world in which our harmony was
of psychic from rational faculties is close to paroxysm.
reserved for the propertied classes but elsewhere held
in check, has allowed political evolution with the guidance
of religion (later without it), yet without renewal of
our sensibility, our subconscious -- without allowing
the emotional evolution of the crown -- which alone could
have rescued us from the deep Christian rut.
in faith, will perish by the weapon of reason: intention.
regression of collective moral power to a strictly individual
and sentimental level has helped to weave an amazing cloak
of abstract knowledge -- behind which society hides to
devour at ease the fruit of its crimes.
Two world wars
have been necessary to bring us to a recognition of this
absurd state. The terror of the third will be conclusive.
The H hour of total sacrifice is close upon us. Europe's
rats already try to build a bridge of frantic escape over
the Atlantic. But events will catch up with the greedy,
the satiated, the self-indulgent, the appeasers, the blind
and the deaf.
They will be
put down without mercy.
A new collective
hope will be born.
Already it commands
the ardour of exceptional lucidities, anonymously bonded
by a new faith in the future and the collectivity to come.
magically wrested from the unknown, lies at our feet.
It has been gathered by the true poets. Its power to transform
is measured by the violence shown against it and by its
resistance in the end to exploitation. After more than
two centuries, de Sade is still not found in bookstores,
and Isidore Ducasse, dead for more than a century of revolutions
and carnage, remains too virile for flabby contemporary
consciences, in spite of the cesspool customs of today.
The items of
this treasure reveal themselves, inviolable, to our society.
They remain the incorruptible, sensitive legacy for tomorrow.
They were ordained spontaneously outside of and in opposition
to civilization, and await freedom from its restraints
to become active in the social scheme.
duty is simple.
To break definitively
with all conventions of society and its utilitarian spirit!
We refuse to live knowingly at less than our spiritual
and physical potential; refuse to close our eyes to the
vices and confidence tricks perpetuated in the guise of
learning, favour, or gratitude; refuse to be ghettoed
in an ivory tower, well-fortified but too easy to ignore;
refuse to remain silent -- do with us what you will, but
you shall hear us; refuse to make a deal with la gloire
and its attendant honours: stigmata of malice, unawareness
or servility; refuse to serve and to be used for such
ends; refuse all intention, evil weapon of reason -- down
with them, to second place!
Make way for
magic! Make way for objective mysteries! Make way for
love! Make way for necessities!
To this global
refusal we contrast full responsibility.
act is fettered to its author; it is stillborn.
act breaks free, through its very dynamism.
We gladly take
on full responsibility for tomorrow. Rational effort,
once in its proper place, will be available again to disengage
the present from the limbo of the past.
the future spontaneously, unpredictably, necessarily.
The past is
contingency of birth, it thus cannot be sacred. We are
always quits with it.
It is naive
and misleading to consider the men and things of history
through the magnifying glass of fame, which lends them
qualities beyond the reach of clever academic monkey tricks,
although such qualities come automatically when man obeys
the deep necessities of being -- when he elects to become
an new man in a new age (the definition of any man, of
End the cascade
of blows from the past which annihilates both present
It is enough
to disengage yesterday from the needs to today. A better
tomorrow will be but the unforeseeable consequence of
No need to concern
ourselves with it before it comes.
forces of society reproach us for our eagerness to work,
our inflated anxieties, our excesses; such things insult
their tolerance and gentleness, and their good taste (generous
and full of hope and love, merely from habit).
Friend of the
present regime suspect us of supporting the "Revolution".
Friend of the "Revolution" call us merely rebels, saying
we "pretest against what now exists but only to transform
it not to displace it." As delicately as this is put,
we think we understand.
It is a question
We are credited
with the naive intention of wanting to "transform" society
by exchanging the men in power with others of the same
kind -- and of ignoring the friends of the "revolution"!
But the only
distinction between these "friends" and those presently
in power is that they belong to different classes -- as
if a change of class implied a change of civilization,
a change of desire, a change of hope!
They would devote
themselves at fixed salary (plus a cost-of-living bonus)
to the organizing of the proletariat. So far, so good:
the trouble is that, once in power, besides low wages
they will foist on the same proletariat always, and always
in the same manner, a renewable levy of supplementary
charges, without discussion.
nevertheless, that they might still be serving history.
Salvation will come only after the most excessive exploitation.
And this excess
they will achieve.
They will achieve
it naturally, with no need of special talents, and the
feasting will be lavish. We have refused to participate,
our "guilty abstention".
For them, the
rationally organized spoils (and everything in the affectionate
bosom of decadence); for us, the unpredictable passion;
for us, the risk of all in global refusal.
each social class will succeed to the government of the
people, unable to avoid the path of decadence. And, equally
for certain, as history affirms, only a full blossoming
of our faculties and a perfect renewal of their emotional
sources will extricate us -- directing us towards the
civilization impatient to be born.)
All of them,
those in power, and those who want the power, would pamper
us, if we agreed to overlook their crookedness by wilfully
restricting our activities.
on pulling down our visors, plugging our ears, lacing
our boots and boldly clearing a way through the pack of
them, whether of left or right.
We prefer being
cynical spontaneously, without malice.
smile at the meagre success of our exhibitions. They are
amused to think themselves the first to spot some bargain
If we continue
to hold such shows, however, it is not in the naive hope
of making fortunes. We know the wealthy stay away from
us. They could not with impunity make contact with incendiaries.
In the past,
misunderstanding of exactly that has generated sales.
We believe this
text will help dispel misunderstandings for the future.
If our activities
increase, it is becuse we feel the urgent need for union
It is there
that success has been gained.
were alone and indecisive.
Today, a group
exist with wide, courageous branches that extend beyond
duty falls on us: history elects us to preserve the precious
treasure it bequeaths.
require relationships repeatedly renewed, or challenged,
or put to question: relationships impalpable, exacting
and dependent on the vivifying force of action.
is poetic resource: the emotional wealth on which the
centuries to come will draw. It cannot be passed on unless
it is transformed, and lacking this it is deformed.
Let those who
are inspired by this endeavour join us.
We foresee a
future in which man is freed from useless chains, to realize
a plenitude of individual gifts, in necessary unpredictability,
spontaneous and resplendent anarchy.
without surrender or rest, in community of feeling with
those who thirst for better life, without fear of set-backs,
in encouragement or persecution, we shall pursue in joy
our overwhelming need for liberation.
Borduas, Écrits/Writings 1942-1958 trans. and eds. François-Marc
Gagnon and Dennis Young (Halifax: 1978), 45-54.