My experience of earthquakes begins in dreams and is linked to dreams. The Mexico observatory registers more than 2,000 temblores a year. The Spanish word has its aptness. We're living on isthmian, volcanic, tropical land between subterranean fire and solar flame, in the Fifth Age of Aztec mythology, the Age of Earth Tremors which must end, according to pre-Columbian predictions, in a seismic cataclysm. Of the 2,000 temblores, the greater part pass unnoticed by waking man whom the cost of living and the news in the papers suffice to keep in anxious suspense. But in sleep perhaps, we resume a more direct, less blinded contact with cosmic events. In the state of half-dream half-sleep which precedes the complete extinction of exterior reality and ushers us into the land of dreams, I have many times distinctly felt the trembling of the Mexican earth. Sometimes this was accompanied by deep fear, calm and far away, contemplative and almost unconcerned; sometimes by fatalistic laziness like the feeling I had, on a June night in 1940 , in a village on the banks of the Loire. We were sleeping, dog tired, the window of the ruined house gaped to the night, we were sleeping on the bare flagstone floor and suddenly a curious hum of mosquitoes arose in the sky, came nearer, became rumbling of motors.....We all four woke up and the one who exclaimed: "Damn !'. I'm not moving again !" expressed our joint decision, not to risk through fear of annihilation, an excess of muscular fatigue. Then it was the tiredness of a rough day's flight which got the better of us, so much so that Laurette slept through her heaviest bombardment without waking up. There is also, in the spirit of aging man, the tiredness of a whole epoch of hard work and disaster, of hard work throughout the disaster. He smiles at the tiny temblor, shuts his eyes tightly, falls asleep. If he were to express an opinion at this moment, I think he would say: "I am used to human disasters. Bloody well leave me alone, all of you, geological cataclysms who canít make up your mind to erupt in earnest, insinuating like another lie down there."
I fall asleep and the spirit, the brain, freed from my control, resume in me their disordered freedom. I dreamed this dream intensely. I was with John D. in a big room in shades of mahogany and garnet-red velvet. Donatienne and a child had just gone into the bathroom or into the room beside it. Suddenly the whole earth began to waver slowly, the building, a kind of sky-scraper, swayed fully, for a long time, more and more fully. I felt a boundless curiosity, fear only nudging underneath. I looked out of the casement window which was high and narrow. A vast townscape unfolded, magnificent and severe; a bend of the Seine, seen from very high up, milk white in the moonlight, the familiar little bridges cutting sharp, black reflections on the metallic water. To the right, in the foreground, I saw the Kremlin Dog Tower, massive, colour of weathered brick, washed in half-light; lower, nearer, the square roof of a high cement building, with lit windows, which wavered. I didn't see the town wavering, our building seemed to sway all by itself. I went to another casement, I don't remember what I saw. I thought we should go down, I hurriedly called to John D. and Donatienne, irritated at whatever might be delaying them. Then I had the idea that it would be useless to go down, that we wouldn't have time. From the landing, I came back into the big room. The building began to lean over from top to bottom, as a boat capsizes, it landed gently without upsetting its internal order, the crazy order of everyday life. I said to John D., who was composed: "We're going to be crushed", I was still hopeful, then I realised there was nothing to hope for, I went on; "We're going to be killed, unless this is a bad dream - the escape within the neurosis!" I put both hands to my face and woke up, - that's to say the dream went on but I thought I had wakened.
There's a break here, then I'm back alone in the street at night, going along a kind of Juarez avenue (I feel it is Juarez avenue, but wider with a murky Parisian atmosphere). My mind is taken up with the fate of Laurette and Jeannine, I want to get back, I tell myself that the house on Hermosillo street is strong enough to have withstood the earthquake, and I reply that that's nonsense. I go into a little corner tobacconist's, ask for Virginias and while the proprietor is looking for them, the earthquake starts again. The merchant serves me and, hampered by a packet, I get together with difficulty 35 centavos and a torn piece of paper I donít want to lose. At the same time I think that it's absurd to worry about centimes and a piece of paper when the earth's shaking........... I go out, the ground is still scoured by a swell, kids chase each other in the road, they go and barge into me, I get annoyed. It's a wet road, it's been raining, there are electric signs, I look up at the windows of a little hotel, they're hung with cream curtains, softly lit, it's somewhere near the Champs-Elysees,
In fact I'd come from a symphony concert. A powerful Grieg concerto and Stravinsky's Firebird suite had carried me away to the depths of an unformed but intense reverie almost without ideas and images. During the day, I'd worked on some pages of a novel referring to a concentration camp, without managing to establish an officer's features. I was rather downhearted, dejected by everything that's going on, this world of carnage. The words "the escape within the neurosis" refer to Freud's theory of religion, which Iíve often thought over for some time, but the intervention of psycho-analysis in the dream itself is odd. For me Paris, Moscow and Mexico form no more than a completely natural internal basis.
Three weeks before, the earth had twice shaken powerfully, between three and four in the afternoon. The house rocked like a tank moving over rather uneven ground. I'd seen the shutters ruffled as in a high wind, then the bookcases sway, then the electric light bulb jolt crazily. We went down into the street by a stone staircase which pitched. Under the trees, children knelt, quite still; the trees, the telegraph wires, the line of roofs dipped and rose gently in the dear light. Twenty minutes later, I'd started to write again when the table slipped away in front of me, the whole room gave way to a gentle rolling; it's as if I felt extremely dizzy myself, what's come over me ? No fear, but an underlying feeling of physical anguish, after which, at night, I feel depressed by a nervous waiting; perhaps the latter implies a beginning of delusion. The state of half-waking, uneasy waiting, is a creative state in a way.
The volcanic eruption of 21 February 1943 introduced itself by a precise dream, remarkable for the intensity of the memory it left behind in me and by the need I felt to speak about it. When you've dreamed in the sleeps of half a century, through wars, revolutions, prisons, flights and crimes, you know how to repress quietly the mysterious constellations which rise up in you in the unconsciousness of the night. It must be that those which don't let themselves be sent obediently back to the secret limbs they come from, have a meaning or at the very least a particular strength.
I was in a park then, Vincennes, Ostrova or Chapultepec, beside an avenue through which a procession had just passed (I don't see the procession any more but Iíve a lingering impression of white clothes). Warm, sunny I was admiring, on the other side of the road, a fine twisted tree, with powerful branches, against a background of ordinary leaves. Beyond, a grey building under construction, higher than broad, with wide recesses full of people, the people like ants in appearance. Suddenly, I'd a dizzy spell accompanied by faint nausea, I looked for support, I saw the fine tree floating in a wavy movement, the grey building slowly broke in two and the top half began to fall in; in the inside, the ant-people became desperately agitated. I thought of the precious people.
Next day, the Indian maid, Esperanza, told me that out in the garden she'd felt a temblor about six in the afternoon. Trees and lawns swayed...... Working in the house, I hadn't noticed. But going along Insurgentes Avenue, I saw a brand new house split at the back as if the heavy blow of an axe had been brought down on a house of card; foremen were making great efforts in the debris, a Green-Cross ambulance waited in the sunshine. The house had partly fallen in at dawn, after an earth tremor. It was exactly the same ashen colour as the house in my dream, the floors in section were wide open just as in the house in my dream. And of course I saw an iron bedstead still in its place in a yellow room on the third floor. A young Catalan refugee and her two children had just been killed there, sacrificed to unscrupulous real estate. (Let's take care not to confuse social questions with cosmic causes. )
Half an hour later, in a tram, Fritz Fraenckel and I were discussing dreams and temblores. Hollowed, furrowed, stripped of sensual life, with a disproportionate forehead in a regular half-circle surrounded by tufts of grey hair, worn eyes full of blue light, his fine head carried on a non-stop enquiry into the hidden man with such a depth of understanding, both scrupulous and kind, that this thinker seemed to increase his interlocutors' self-knowledge by his contact alone. I told him the dream, the coincidence; it didnít present any mystery to the old psychoanalyst, but he always wanted to search beyond that, to go further back, perhaps as far as pre-natal mentality! I told him things I was frankly becoming aware of for the first time. That in my works I'd several times used the word seisme to describe events well before I knew Mexico; that in my latest novel (unpublished) I'd a character who was a learned seismologist; that to the novel of the Russian tragedies I gave the provisional title: The earth began to shake .. bad title, moreover. He answered that, according to Ferenczi's remarkable theories, the human being probably owes his very psychological formation, the birth of his intelligence, to vast planetary catastrophes ...We bought the evening papers. They gave the news that a little volcano had just thrust itself up in the middle of peaceful fields at San-Juan Parangaricutiro, in the State of Michoacan.
In the night of 22 to 23 February, the following night, we woke up, prey to a strange surprise. The beds floated like punts on a choppy lake. The substantial house of stone and reinforced concrete pitched clumsily, slowly, in long successive shakes. The night's swells lifted it, slanted it, let it go back to the momentary equilibrium of a rest, of the imperceptible stop the pendulum must make before restarting its swing. Laurette woke up saying: "Jeannine, Jeannine", but without fear, with a detached anxiety. I felt no fear but a little nausea, thought of fear, thought of danger (is the house going to hold out if this goes on?). The rocking of the world went on, the blinds streaked by a nocturnal glimmer moved like telegraph wires seen from a moving train,
A Victor Brauner1 canvas hanging on the wall, La Fleur merveilleuse in the crystal heart, complied with a magical swaying. That lasted more than six minutes, the presence of the cataclysm became quite a simple fact. The tenants moved out of the flats, on the stairs there was the same panic-stricken overcrowding as during an unexpected bombing raid. The electricity was off and rightly, suitably, we'd no matches to hand.
"It's over", Laurette said at last, for I hadn't noticed.
I thought it couldn't, shouldn't finish . Why would the earth resume its lying stability? Sitting in the dark, Jeannine spoke in a cheery voice, her nine-year-old eyes wide-open in a question: Ah, temblor! The people in pyjamas in the street were cheerful too. It seems there was a weaker tremor which we didn't notice once we'd gone back to sleep. It brings up an animal panic so very different from human states of panic that consciousness isn't aroused. A tremendous feeling of powerlessness takes hold of the depths of our being. We feel the earth floating on the fiery ocean deeps, we feel, we only think later. We have a vague notion of the inexorably simple splitting of the mountains.
Called on Fritz Fraenckel in the morning. He told me that yesterday evening he'd been discussing temblores with Alice and Otto Ruhle, So it was "in the air"?
"Yes, friend, every conceivable catastrophe and then some are in the air just now, let's see!"
Obviously, he tells me about the amusing panic of the two basset hounds. Max and Schnaps, which ran crazily around the house, giving pitiful yaps of pain. Then:
"You see, I've an interesting patient, a delightful young woman who wouldn't hurt a fly and has an obsession with killing (I think I know her by sight: little blonde girl with sharp features, blue eyes, anaemic complexion, big mouth and pretty curls; elegant half-boy, a very attractive little Parisian or Viennese ). She's just told me that she was expecting an earthquake, so sure of her intuition that she'd laid out her clothes and packed her bag to have everything ready as you do when you know the Gestapo's coming. She'd no fear, but when she heard the fire-engine ringing and the ambulances' sirens wailing, she felt relieved.
I said, " We need these little cosmic experiences to complete our social experiences,'
And I realise that I make no comment, but take it very seriously indeed. Everything's in place, perhaps it still falls short of the Time of Destruction and Massacre when the rocks split, the mountains are swallowed up and new Andes rise up out of the Ocean. I feel like the artisans of the Middle Ages who, in their ordered chaos, waited for 1,000 A.D., counting on the Apocalypse.
Our friend Alice Gerstel-Ruhle has a good education in science. She's just published in Spanish a remarkably concise essay on Freud and Adler. She's a Marxist with intellectual versatility; in Prague, then in Mexico, she did her best to apply Adlerian psychology to teaching. Nothing superstitious about this sharp, complex subtle but clear mind, which is always on its guard without self-indulgence and already calmly preparing to commit suicide. We were parting one evening at the gate of of a cactus garden. Alice had a sharp face, often a smiling expression when she was anxious.
"There'll be an earthquake tonight," she said. " I feel them coming, it's a nervous uneasiness, superficial but clear."
Nothing happened in Mexico, but the papers carried the news that, in the South of Colombia, a little town had been razed that night by a violent earthquake.
A newspaper says that Emilio F. Nolte Bustamente, an engineer, had predicted the earthquake which has just taken place several days beforehand. His calculations are based on astronomical data. The reporter mentions the 'coordinates of the earth, sun and moon and, after paying attention to Mr Bustamente, comes to the conclusion Ďthat the movements of the earth can be foreseen .' Predictions of this kind are going to continue without coming true, however. I make no inference from a theory which may have its merits; from knowledge, even correctly interpreted, there is always a hazardous leap to prediction.
The main earthquake of 21-22 February lasted from 3.21 a.m. to 3.27a.m. a.m., reaching the seventh degree on the Mercalle scale, that's to say a force strong enough to put the registering apparatus out of use. They place the epicentre in an area of the Pacific to the south-west of Mexico. Two children were born in a maternity hospital while the earth was shaking, Juana Ortega de Rosa and Manuela Ibarra. Will they have a special intuition of the world's instability? There was great panic in the hospitals, among the paralysed and patients who had just been operated on. There were several casualties in the poor districts, where ramshackle old houses partly caved in. It's said that most towns wouldn't have withstood such quakes, but that Mexico City is built on a water-bearing bed which absorbs the tremors . It's said that, according to competent geologists, some regions on the Pacific coast of Mexico are threatened with a geological catastrophe. That's an observation from educated people, who've reason to believe that geological competence exists.
Far more numerous, the people who've never heard the word geology say the earthquake was a punishment: in fact, a few days before, a priest had been killed in La Merced's market suburb. If the volcano has come through the ground at San-Juan de Parangaricutiro, it's because at that precise spot someone had committed sacrilege by snatching a cross. The disproportion between this offence, this sacrilege or this punishment is disquieting (or this warning: don't meddle with priests or crosses). The tradespeople of la Merced and the Indians of the villages are happily ignorant of what's happening in the world.
Noted these glimpses of temblores. Earthquake during a corrida de toros (bullfight). The fan was in the cheap seats on the top tiers. From up there, he saw the whole circus sway like a crater full of people; in the arena, the bull lurched blind with rage, the Killer clad like a glistening insect flourished his red cape and his little eccentric sword all the wrong way . A long way off, the amphitheatre of mountains moved gently. The fan was afraid of falling somewhere between beast and killer, from five tiers up. Workers were building a skyscraper. They were seen holding onto the steel girders of a fifteenth floor flat which were shaking like preposterous masts. And this, a personal recollection. I was going up a street in a seaside village when I was overcome by a strange dizzy spell and I turned round towards the bottom of the street, towards the blue sea from which the horizon was going up and up, as if the earth was tilting, as if the horizon of sea was going to topple over on to the earth . It was slow, simple and awe-inspiring.
San-Juan Parangaricutiro is a pueblo, a very prosperous Indian village, situated in mountainous plains some 330 kilometres from Mexico City as the crow flies, 200 kilometres from the Pacific. A village shepherd was grazing his sheep in the brilliant green sunlit solitude with peaks on the skyline. Underground rumblings and undulations of rippling running through the maize fields had made people curious. But in such cases, they say: Temblor!, cross themselves and go on with what they're doing. Old women go to church, believing that Isidro's and Sanchez' sins can't be unconnected with heaven and earth's bad tempers and that an insistent prayer, offered up to the dark Virgin of Guadeloupe or The Virgin of Zapopan who saves from fire, can be timely. The Queen of Heaven will understand that there's little help for the drunkard Sanchez, good sort for all that, for the fighter Isidro, and that Maria or Rosa's faltering voice is filled with sincere repentance for others' sins. Generally, the Virgin hears the prayers and everything turns out all right, and the sins go on.
This time, the shepherd saw a thin wisp of smoke trickling up out of the ground. He went up, the smoke was hot, insistent, rising. The fissure in the scorched stones widened, below his bare feet the earth was sighing 'as if it was breathing'. Immediately there were several straight plumes of smoke and sparks in the grass. The little Indian ran all the way to the village, four kilometres away, where nobody was prepared to believe him. However, some kids at a loose end and some wise old Indians went back with him, for after all a field is worth something and these were good fields . An hour later, a group of wise men with dark, silent faces shaded by big straw hats with conical crowns was gazing at the birth of the volcano, squatting comfortably on the warm, green, shifting ground under the intense heat of the sun. So far it was only a grey hillock hardly a metre high, rumbling faintly, wreathed in steam and thick smoke, lit by vague sparks, boiling over in fits and starts with a glowing froth of molten matter. In a few hours, this became a formidable mound, twenty metres high, a hundred metres in diameter, giving out an unbearable heat, spewing up flows of blackish lava in all directions.
At nightfall, they saw that this lava was blazing, it gushed continuously, and the top of the mound was wreathed with leaping fire. Inside, a dull thudding of explosions shook the ground all the time, as far as the village and well beyond. Burning sandstorms swept down on the streets of San-Juan Parangaricutiro, sparks set fire to the roofs of thatch or old wood; there was a sudden panic, they learnt a new word, volcan. etymologically linked perhaps to the Castilian verb volcar. to overturn., to upset. The earth was upset. In the morning, a pylon of thick smoke dominated the landscape, right at the end of the street. The smoke hung, curving a great wreath in mid-air, putting a question mark against the fate of mankind. The people's flight began, the donkeys and mules took the women, the children, the personal belongings, the humble treasures, in long lines on the mountain roads, blinded by the scorching sun, and silent men, bending under their burdens, walked beside the laden animals. The towns of Uruapan and Guadalajara sent lorries. The government departments promised the victims new land. Luckily, it's not land that's lacking in Mexico !
In catastrophes there are always those who want to flee and those who want to stay. I don't know which is the greater courage, that is, if that kind of choice creates an inequality of courage. I don't know which reasoning is the wiser, whether it's to flee uprooting themselves from familiar homes, from the places of childhood and of the future, from memories, from the land broken by forefather's hands, to tackle a new experience in life, begin again, in the unknown; or whether it's to stay, whatever the danger, to hang on tenaciously. I'm inclined to think the choice is made in the depths of the unconscious under the influence of still mysterious causes which divide even strong men into those with adventurous and those with conservative natures. Most of the people left, including an old man of a hundred and eight, too poor of course to have a donkey, too isolated, I guess, to be offered a ride on a mule, too independent just to get on a lorry, who therefore set out on foot, his bundle over his shoulder. The photo shows his finely set face under the sombrero A good third of the inhabitants decided to stay under the rain of ash, in spite of the fires, the subterranean cannonades, the growth of the volcano, higher every morning, sparking more fiercely every night. The priest refused to leave his church, a fine church, and let a miraculous crucifix be taken away. After a few days, the volcano of Paracutin established its crater several hundred metres high and its wreath hid half the night sky.
Secure in the intrusion and untroubled by the fire in the centre, the people who stayed had no idea that they were onto a good thing. There are amazingly good things to be picked up in all disasters! Unlike the marauders and camp-followers of the battlefields, the Indian farmers of San-Juan de Parangaricutiro made their good things in all innocence and therefore made them less well than the same kind of trader from the neighbouring towns. Tourism came in. Purveyors of beer and of preserves set up their booths at the foot of the volcano, in the belt shielded by the atmospheric currents which diverted the rain of ash and fire-balls. In San Juan itself, around the cervecerias (beer-saloons) in the evening, by the harsh gleam of the arc lamps, in the great red glow of volcanic fire, there were little, grating string-bands and couples dancing: American tourists, ladies and gentleman of the cities, of the kind who spend in a night in the bars of Mexico City the equivalent of a year's pay for an Indian, and just as modest fiesta-loving girls and boys. Dancing on a volcano arouses a curious excitement, evidently. Only the real Europeans are blasť about it, I imagine, perhaps wrongly.
Meanwhile, the exodus went on, for the victory of fire and lava went on; the dwelling places and the paddocks, covered by a thick layer of grey ash which choked the lush vegetation, were being abandoned. The Indians provided guides for the tourists, hired mules, let humble, bare rooms where doubtless men and women of the future were conceived after the dances on the volcano. Grave and indifferent, their wide eyes filled with endless sadness, revealing only a resigned impassiveness, the Indians watched, on the rim of the circle of light, the couples turn on the ash, the men drink beer and tequila, that harsh cactus spirit, the Americans take photographs. And if the Indians thought about anything, it could only be about the death of the fields and the village, about the uncertain future, about the windfall piastres earned in the great calamity.
I went twice on a pilgrimage to the volcano. One morning, Lake Patzcuaro is spread out, a subdued mirror of the sky. It's the most soothing, the least rugged, spot in Mexico. You could imagine you were in a Mediterranean country there, so much is the brightness without burning, the mountain without roughness, the vegetation without danger, the smooth water without menace. The lake is spacious enough to give an impression of luminous fullness, the altitude high enough to temper the tropics, the atmosphere so full of freshness that you're free of the feeling, which you've all the time in the selvas or on the coasts, of nature abounding in elemental vitality but the enemy of man and first of all destroyer of his brain. I know the dull pain of living under the fire of the zenith and the moistness of giant leaves. The pleasant land of Patzcuaro, whose name in Tarascan means "Place of Delights", is something like a Provence in climate, even if it has its scorching moments, between noon and four o'clock.
I picture the unknowable Provence of three thousand years ago, probably inhabited by a dignified, bronzed race, silent, agile with due deliberation, artistic like the people who live here. The race, of mongoloid type, strictly speaking darker than bronzed, also makes me thing of the Kazaks of the steppes of Central Asia who have the same confident silence, the same gentleness of low tones, the same grace of silhouette even in rags. On the shores of the pearly lake, the Tarascans are mostly fishermen, a few farmers. They live out of the lake which they furrow in long, smooth canoes hollowed out of a single trunk. .The tourists admire them, they ignore the tourists, they ignore the revolutionary generals, they ignore medicine, furniture, papers, they ignore the Second World War! They live in their little houses, which are often more than half huts, in their island gardens, in their canoes the same as six hundred years ago, when they had a kingdom, temples in the shape of pyramids, a sculpture full of realistic humour, sovereigns called Vapeani, Pauacume, Tariacuri, Tzitzipandacuare, Zuanga. They're peaceful in their islands, on the fringe of the commanding villas, except for the little, too delightful, island of Janitzio, at the summit of which President Don Iazaro Cardenas has had a colossal monument put up to the liberator Morelos (shot of course in times past). The work of Ruiz, the sculptor, looks like a peculiar lighthouse from a distance, nearer like a hand cut off and placed on the rock, raising a disquieting forefinger, nearer still I don't know whether to find it basically ugly or successful like an outcrop of extremely rigid rocks evoking a heroic form. So many visitors come there to gaze at the grandeur of the lake and of the amphitheatre of mountains that the Tarascans have opened Coca-Cola bars and little restaurants; and kids come and sing a verse of cantilena to you in an unintelligible language for a quinto, a sou, breaking from under fishing nets spread out in the sun, emerging from interiors where a penumbra of Rembrandt prevails over the pottery, the lines, the peppers and the fruit.
The volcanic ash covered everything here with a fine mineral dust but didn't cloud the perfect transparency of the air. In the distance, above the blue hills, an unwieldy pillar of dense clouds opened out, more compact and more grey than real clouds, motionless at the base, mounting broader and broader until it plumed and spread over fifty kilometres of space in thin trails of vapour laden with ash. I'll never forget the extraordinarily starry night over the lake, which seemed more brilliant, more cosmically vivid than the most intense sky nights I can remember, the nights of the Ural steppes transformed by ice-banks of snow, the Martinique nights where I saw the Pole Star and the Southern Cross at the same time, while on both shores of a spit of land, rightly called Land's End where we were interned in an old leper hospital, the slack waves lapped softly, rubbing the sand. Such a profusion of stars I can no longer place a single one and it would be ridiculous to give one a name. The first splendours disappeared in this astral tide, life found a complete vindication in the observation. The lake was of black ink, poor image! The lake was of material nothingness, but every second it re-emerged from nothingness, dotted with islands, surrounded with high places, for lightning lit on the horizon with such regularity that for a moment we thought we were in the presence of an unknown lighthouse. It was only the flash of electrical storms suspended somewhere above the volcano.
Beyond Patzcuaro, one enters a privileged region, a kind of vast sub-tropical garden, abundantly watered during the rainy season. Godsend for the eyes, for the spirit after the charring dryness of the high plateau and its prickly cactus slopes. There's a railway station, between Jujucato and Parangaricutiro, called Tarascan. In Tarascan, "Abundance - of - Flowers", Uruapan is a little, over-crowded Spanish town with tall trees, recently ravaged by fires, which has just lived through a premonition of disaster while burning ash rained down on old, dry roofs. The wind changed, they got over their fear, sleepy, febrile life goes on, but the town with its light colours, orderly gardens, pink and cream-coloured streets seems to be given over to soot. The park of Cupatizio, "The Singing Waters", with a hundred springs and more ash-covered leaves and flowers, which makes a scenery of ominous shades, but the waters leap and sing, the invulnerable waters.
The car turns into a road with undergrowth and deep ruts. We're doing ten k.p.h.. The foliage is as normal, but there is something of dark tragedy in the air. We go past a pitiful village with tumble-down huts, blackened, deserted. Little black pigs skip in the black puddles, ash, ash. An idiotic bar at the side of the road still displays the thighs and the smile of a Hollywood girl, smeared with black, who recommends American drinks. Destitution and solitude. The land, maize crops, trees, the tiniest plants take on a darkish-grey key, harbinger of death. The ash has begun to obliterate the road by drifting into dunes. We're doing five k.p.h. risking the death trap at the bends. We go through a sinister wood in failing light. Trees have burnt out, a great fire has passed over them, burial under the ash smothers the roots, loads down what's left of leaves, the twilight's coolness is like a cave's. An absurdly terrifying tomb in this half-death of land and tree, at the side of the black road where tyres and feet sink. A vertical board remains of the Cross; to one side, a kind of scarecrow, leaning back, rigged up with branches and the tattered clothes of the murdered man, begins to look like a tottering ghost under the dead timber trees. Perfect tomb.
The volcano comes suddenly into view in the distance, astonishingly near in perspective, at the edge of a clearing. It's as lively as the sea. The massive column of greyish smoke mounts and spreads out towards the sky, colossal. We see the dark masses of gas, dust, steam, smoke move heavily on themselves, twist and knot; they have swollen gut shapes, in labour, they don't break up, but go on mounting and rhythmically ignite a fire like an open furnace. We listen to the regular blast of the explosions.
The arrival at San-Juan de Parangaricutiro offers an 'apocalyptic' spectacle, to use Saint Paul's word, a word simply right. Dead of night, the car runs into a vast, empty square. The night is trebly dense, owing to the black earth and the vast tail of the black comet which bends at its zenith, poised, it seems, to crash down on the doomed region and overwhelm it irremissibly. The anticipation of sinking under the choking fumes and burning ash gets on one's nerves. Why not? The worn-out intellect calls to mind the Moslems' "It was written", a first rate explanation since it explains nothing except the total futility of combat and consent. The final strength of beaten man is consent. In saying "I accept", he affirms again a higher serenity in his defeat.
The village square seems boundless; on one whole side, it runs into tracts of devastation, that is, of darkness. The church's baroque bell tower is a cry of black stone, which rises into the darkness. The starry stretches of the sky are phosphorescent and against this background the square's massive stone cross is another beaten cry, relapsed into silence. At a street corner, electricity flares, creating a small island of harsh light, as to the back of a cave, but the cave would be a microcosm of the world. Round about little Indian kitchens set up in the open air, intensely dark human shapes move, round shouldered under scrapes and big white hats.
From the middle of the square comes a crowd murmur, a stamping of horses, an engine's revving quite low amid the ash. Heads of dejected little horses with expressionless eyes surround us, and heads of reddish mules as soon as a gleam lights on them, opaque eyes; and Indian heads, and hands of living mummies which abruptly offer us ends of rope, "Take my beast, Senor , Senora". We're swamped in a stagnant press of hindquarters, equine profiles, harness sensual pre-Columbian masks. Alcohol-laden breaths. A drunken Indian, with gaping mouth and dim eyes, harasses a woman traveller, he points a rope at her chin and repeats in a pleading tone that it will only cost a peso, a piastre to go up the volcano on his mule. Riders whose teeth only we see in the darkness float above the mass of beasts and men of which we're part. At the end of a street of low houses completely enveloped in darkness, I suddenly catch sight of the brilliant red fire. Fiery clouds shoot out of the crater, die out, shoot out again with a rhythm of exhalation and inhalation.
My friends have left on a conducted tour. I wander about alone for a while, stumbling in the darkness, darker than I had ever experienced Occasional passers-by carry a lit brand in their hands, an old woman, a child; the sorceress and the black angel-fish. The distant fire hypnotises me, especially its rhythm. We say I, me, and now we feel unstable, multi-faceted, dispersed in complete solitude, brushed by things, beings. It is astonishing not to see oneself, only to feel the clumsiness of one's fumbling feet; I am only the barely waking personality of this night, of this primordial fire. In a recess of my brain, a work outlines itself, and I, who almost never think in Russian verse, write in my head, or rather these lines write themselves in my mind, on a reminiscence of my old comrade, the shot Nicolas Stepanovich Gumilev; "Our old leopard and the firebirds/ Made their peace on these lands./So why, my friend, do you dwell on yourself?/ in vino veritas? No, no, the truth's in fire."
Dangling a miner's lamp, the sixteen-year-old village lad, Sebastian Lopez, a good-looking boy of mixed blood, Spanish and Tarascan or Nahua, guides me up to the crater by the strange path of material nothingness At our feet the lamp outlines a faint circle of ineffective light on total darkness. We climb, we scale dunes, sometimes sinking knee-deep in them. Sebastian Lopez is a serious little lad who speaks thoughtfully in a modulated voice.
"Which countries are fighting which, Senor," he asks me, "and who will win?"
He doesn't seem to know that Mexico, too, is at war, but why, against whom, with what allies ? There are too many countries in the scrap, the folk of San-Juan de Parangaricutiro don't think they'll make anything out of it.
Sebastian Lopez grumbles: "Y porque, Senor, tanta Guerra?" (And why, sir, such a great war?) "Will Mexico win?"
I assure him sincerely that Mexico will win. I don't feel very clever. We move on by humps and hollows, I make out that we're going through a dead wood on a hillside, completely destroyed. Cosmic sighs and burnings come nearer as if we were going into battle. At last in the scrub of ghostly trees the clearly-outlined curve of the crater comes in sight fringed by purple flames which raise black clouds. Total night
On an elevation opposite the crater, the camp, some wooden huts where they sell beer, a kind of European prison coffee, food cooked on charcoal-burning stoves. Tourists, horses, everything is both real and unreal at the same time. In the middle of me darkness and everything, the dazzling eruption. The mountain shoots out an enormous firework display, monotonous, extravagant, terribly powerful.
You know the Christmas colour-prints on which a little rectangular window glimmers on the background of a snowy night. It's a little like that, only the snow is dark carbon: there's a lit window six hundred metres ahead, at the very foot of the volcano, ridiculously near the conflagration. I go there alone. This star disappears as I plunge into the gully. I only need to walk along the dune towards the rhythmic thunder and the shooting flames which take over the sky. The air is hot and vibrating. The window re-appears. It's Doctor Atlís hut. In the glass, I see the group of friends and a very lively, little old man with a short grey beard, laughing and gesticulating. He looks like Blanqui in his final years, the face more pinched, however. We have a moment's conspicuous joy in running across each other and meeting , as if it were at the end of the earth, in one of the last huts still extant after a torrent of lava.
Doctor Atl is Spanish. He prefers Atl, Water, an assumed name borrowed from Nahua, to his fine Castilian name, Gerardo Murillo. Water seeps through, erodes, overflows. Water is active, insubstantial, self-willed, transitory; he too. He's sixty-eight, with slight, delicate features, a white beard like a collar, an expression of alertness, of goodwill, of good humour, underlying which something bitter, distraught perhaps, comes through, an imperious reason ruling everything else - everything there is to rule, say! - or a marked streak of lucid madness. He has horny, hard, black nails, and fine, virile, hands. He's like a faun. His old suit creasing in every direction shows the material of the lining on the seat. The interior has only one object of value, the stout paraffin lamp; he sleeps on an Indian mat, a petate, without undressing, only washes if necessary, lives on scanty grub prepared at the campamento, drinks the deplorable coffee a little Indian girl of eight brings him which he offers us gladly and which will remain one of the best coffees I've ever drunk. The hut is as cluttered with painting and drawing materials as a Montparnasse studio. Big canvas begun, on an easel. The volcano studies Doctor Atl shows us, drawn in charcoal and pencil, are extremely conscientious, stripped of all impressionism, and therefore they give a sense of direct contact. Atl intends to make a documentary record, for study; then, to paint the different aspects of the volcano in ten large canvases.
I didn't walk to this window on my own without some apprehension I know about Dr Atl's books of raving anti-Semitism in the style of Louis-Ferdinand Celine which are still sold in the pro-Fascist bookshops of Mexico City. But there a young French woman had said to me: "He's a wonderful old man, we must forgive him that."
Forgive that! Christ wouldn't forgive that! However, the "for they know not what they do" is valid in many cases. I discover an old man to whom it applies. Atl was one of the most remarkable figures of the Mexican Revolution, one of the organisers of the House of the People, of the trade union movement and of the Red Battalions which ensured the victory of Don Venustiano Carranza in 1915, that is, of revolutionary constitutionalism on the basis of a soldiery which would do everything. Afterwards adventurous politician, geologist, archaeologist, director of digs, he discovered under the lava of Pedregal the pyramid of Cucuilco, the oldest of the new world, founded museums, squandered credits, disdained to make his fortune, made friends with the reactionaries, admired Fascisms, everything with passion, confusion, vigour, levity, disorganized intelligence. At sixty-four, disgusted with many things and doubtless sick and tired of himself, he built a shanty three thousand metres up on the Popocatepetl snowline and retired there with canvases and colours. Life was never anything more than an adventure for him in the best as well as the most ordinary sense of the word; and all his life he never stopped painting well. While we walk on black slopes, gazing at the hundreds of sulphurous vapours shooting out of cracks in the lava and covering the site with a white arborescence, he tells me, "Order is the worst. Once you've put yourself into order, you're done for. Disorder has saved me. Nothing's as beautiful as disorder."
Saved from what: Power, money, pride, sinking?
His French is Parisian. "I studied at the School of Higher Studies and at the Sorbonne. But I did my real philosophy on the Boulevard de la Villette and the Boulevard de la Chapelle."
"Me too", I say, "I owe something to those latter schools."
And I see that, in me Paricutin landscape, he's like a real Panamanian tramp.
I: "I've known your name since the heroic times of the House of the People. You were a true revolutionary."
He: "Yes. It's far back. When you think of the past, you don't really know whether to laugh or cry."
"We must go on."
"Go on from mistake to mistake, to be sure. I go on studying volcanoes. This is my son."
"Fewer risks of mistakes from now on."
From his landscapes I know high places, virgin and desert-like, painted with a harsh hand, where never a living soul is seen, nothing but the austere mountain in lines of terrestrial force. We discuss it.
"Man is too tiny", he says, laughing.
In this old man there's an endless joie de vivre. Even his musing must be an ardent meditation. Before a tropical dawn, a blood-red sunset, I imagine him laughing, alone and needing no-one.
He very much needed to hate men he didn't know, at least in the bookish abstract, for he is kindness itself and doesn't want to notice (actually, he makes fun of it ) that to-night there's a young Jew among his guests. He needed to believe that he hated, with derangement and frenzy, thinking to unmask world-wide conspiracies, and it's doubtless not his fault if others misled him in this loathsome infantilism which resulted in the genocide of a whole people. Others, systematic, good technicians of human destruction. He is so close to the great Jews himself, in personality, vitality, physique even! Doubtless the frenzy belongs to the mistakes of the past too. I don't ask him That's no longer important here.
Nine at night, We all sit on a mat outside, facing the eruption. We're so close to it that we feel tiny under the truncated, fairly regular cone of dark matter shot up from the depths. The volcano is more broad than high, to the right its runs into ridges of rocks solidified in full flow, basalts and lavas. At the top, the rim of the crater traces out a very distinct line as taut as a bowstring, suddenly lit up, then extinguished. Leaping along from the glowing slag, low wisps of fire break out around this rim and fed trails are spreading on the black slopes. Itís cold. The mountain sings, rumbles, grumbles falls silent, breathes in air, breathes out subterranean fire. Really, it's the breath of the earth. The volcano is four hundred metres high, its purple flames rise to twice its height, fall again of rains of molten rubble, meteors, burning ash, under the comet's dark, widespread tail. We follow the rise and fall of the meteors while the volcano, taking breath, down, darkens, pretends to die out. In the wake of the comet's tail, the stars are green, the sky is clear; meteors for a moment among the constellations. At this hour, the Milky Way hangs over the volcano, so that the eruption to infinity: the dark, louring one of its clouds and the aerial, glacial, softly luminous one of the galaxy. We hear the hissing lava flows. In the hollows of the hills, red flows gasp, dim, again. It's a sight like the beginnings of the world.
Dr Atl says he's had a piece of luck, an extraordinary piece of luck. For ten years he'd studied extinct volcanoes, he'd waited for a great source of fire to be roused. His wishes have been granted He repeats: ďI love this one like my son!"
Lightning forks in the huge fan of the fire, but instead of falling in freakish zigzags, it outlines unexpected fringed crosses on a purple background, Ďx's of instantaneous whiteness.
Warmed by the cactus alcohol, we sleep side by side on the hut floor to the sound of the explosions like so many Europeans at this time). Flashing scarlet gleams stabbed through the badly-joined boards in front of me. I caught a glimpse of the white flashes of the electrical discharges. The slipping of the lava extended a foam noise on the shore. The fire-balls falling from 1,500 metres up hammered the ground hard, I woke up several times with a feeling of disaster purely and simply. I thought that the rains of burning rocks might be looking for us. We weren't so important!
About 6 am., discovery of a unique landscape. It's solely in tones of dimly yellowing ash tinged with sulphur. Wanness of sky, heaviness of fumes, gracefulness of mist, complete annihilation of the vegetable kingdom as far as the eye can see, and whilst the light comes in, the earth gets darker, its tracts look mortally desert-like. The crater's dying blazes are pink or the garnet-red of dried blood The paleness of the mounting clouds smothers them. To the right, a cliff of reddish-brown rocks of puffy tones. It's the basalt ridge born of Paricutin. The mound we're on goes down in rounded slopes towards the base of the volcano and there in the gully, the disrupted rocks open stone lips which the straight jets from the smoke-holes escape in hundreds. Around us the undulating heights have only the colour of the ash, the thin woods are dead, fragile skeletons of trees are yellowish, not a sign of life, Yes though on a charred tree; two or three tiny green shoots.
Two Indian women mince along through the solitude; an old woman, a young woman. They come to gaze at "The Wonder", they tell me sadly.
Horsemens's silhouettes stand out on the black ridges.
The Mexican light only gets blinding and torrid after 10 a.m. The descent to the boundless plains and the villages of San-Juan, by the volcanic dunes, the killed-off woods, the ruined crops and grazings, through a lunar landscape, lifeless and grey which seems the only reality becauseit is so vast, the descent becomes a return to the brightness of the high plateaux, to the comforts of life. The morning sun gilds the fields which are in dire straits. Stems and leaves emerge from the ash. Tragically, on the outskirts of the pueblo, hardy magueys still stab with their strong, leaves a metre long, lodges of mineral dust The streets are dead. San-Juan Parangarieutiro, founded between 1540 and 1545 shortly after the Spanish conquest, is completing four centuries of existence. Fleeing from Beltran Nuno de Guzmanís conquistadores, Tarascan farmers took refuge on this hill. They were evangelised only a hundred years later although their church, a symbol of submission before becoming a symbol of faith, may have been first built about 1580 perhaps. Statistics for the village give more than 1,500 inhabitants; the administrative area has more than 4000 scattered over 302 square kilometres. On the scale of Latin America this population was rich.
The church proves this, built in good stone, Renaissance style, overlooking a very wide square and the humble flock of dwellings, which are never higher than one storey; the best off, appointed with a good roof visibly overhanging the pavement, the simplest roofed with old boards and thatch singed by the fire. The three aisles, surprisingly spacious and high, bathed in white light, are almost bare. It's 9 am. An Indian is finishing sweeping the ash from the flagging, a group of the faithful moves forward to the choir on their knees. They're mainly women, old men, children; the mothers hold the children in their arms. They move forward on their knees murmuring. Facing the choir, they stand up on their bare feet, slight brown forms, tense, dressed in white cottons and dark shawls. The napes of their necks are erect, the forms have the pride of figurines and they go on murmuring litanies while outlining a hopping dance, both solemn and light, on the spot. The aisle fills with a steady rhythm which sounds like water dripping on a flagstone The group of the faithful go out like this: turned to the choir, wide apart, murmuring and dancing slowly backwards, each tense silhouette taking a measured half-step forward, a little whole step backward. Doubtless this is a very ancient magic dance, assimilated to the Christian prayer Its expression is intense, itís a reluctant departure, interrupted by many returns and incantatory entreaties. These are bronzed people, some thin to the point of emaciation, with sunken eyes and abstracted looks. Dancing, they pass before us without giving us a glance. May their prayer be heard!
We came back a year later to the fair land of Michoacan, in February, a long time after the rainy season. We travel indefinitely by burnt steppes, burnt mountains, along burnt gullies. Thin cattle browse hopelessly on the last faded grass. The dry ground, left to the sun, takes on its colour, and we realise that the earthly colour of the sun can be terribly bleak. The desert's victory is clear The Indian mud-huts also have this lifeless colour of celestial fire turned dead clay. Around them grow the powerful magueys, these clusters of broad vegetal swords and curved, pointed scimitars, with sharp tips and spiteful prickles, sumptuously ornamental and tragic. The plant seeks the dampness of the soil, it breathes the baking air, like the cacti, it gives an impression of aimed deprivation, of solitary vigour, of rigour both flexible and tough. Scarcely fermented, its sap distils into deadly spirits. The more we gaze at it, the better we detect the noble force which mounts in it, defying dryness, burning, destruction.
At the stations the beggars of the Middle Ages show man as withered as the plant. They're bronzed faces, almost black, furrowed, harshly virile. In them I recognise the brothers of the Russian beggars, and of the Flemings painted by Breughel. However, most of them are in good health. The sun bakes the earth, man, destitution, the will to live. When the landscape changes under the godsend of the waters and a little valley appears, the eyes feel an inexpressible relief. I feel how near and necessary vegetable life is to us.
Patzcuaro is abandoned; it's a little old Spanish-Indian town, Spanish by its stones, Tarascan by its people, rich in the pride of its great trees with dark leaves, planted centuries ago on the squares. Market day, medley of colours, poverty. From the villages round about, the Tarascans come up the paths to the town, carrying their humble wares, often only a few long, transparent fish of clear horn shade. The women carry their children strapped to their backs in blue shawls; waking children with grave, dark eyes who never cry, it seems. There are hundreds, all silent, among the stalls; some are uncomfortable without a doubt, but they instinctively know the futility of complaining, the benefit of watchful resignation which spies its chance The square is greenish, stabbed by shafts of sunlight, it has aspects of selva and outlines of a country town of some exhausted Castile, clinging to life. The goods on the ground variegate it splendidly. They sell meat, mutton I believe, dried in the sun (as they do also in Central Asia), in thick, flat slices which don't look too bad. Fruit, sweet peppers, fishing nets, wickerwork make dazzling symphonies of colours through which the beggars, the old and the infirm make their way under their big, dirty hats and dusty serapes. Rodin would have liked their bare, Y-shaped feet with their nails rooted in toughened flesh. No unworthiness in them, but an irreparable anguish, passive, aggressive by its very presence like a banal Ecce Homo! repeated in a low voice with no possible reply.
This great, calm people is a people of silence and murmuring. On one side of the square, a fine house shut up, painted pinky-red, with bourgeois curtains and wrought-iron balconies. Behind a first-floor window, a well-to-do gentleman in European dress smokes while gazing at the swarming down below. He rules. The Avuntamiento. the seventeenth century Town Hall, looks gloomy. Three windows with grilles; at them, men in sombreros and white shirts chat while looking down also at the tempting movement below. They're the inmates of the softest prison in the world. Some are serving long sentences possibly for having carried off their fiancťe instead of asking her parents for her, settling the matter from the commercial point of view by discussing the dowry, and shamming an abduction for honour and tradition so that marriage begins by a flight, a conquest.
Lined by brightly-coloured low houses with wide window roofs, the side streets are traversed by yokes I know: the arba of the Georgians of the Caucasus, two oxen with very wide-set horns pulling a vehicle set on two high wheels. A peasant leads them, like his brothers of Ossetia or Mingrelia he doesn't know about, wearing the same tall hat, holding the same firmly iron-tipped goad. In a delightful, quietly-lit street leading up to a baroque church in terra-cotta tones, the mad beggar woman, squatting on a threshold, gets up at our approach and comes and holds out a swarthy, pink hand, scaled with hardened dirt, hideous to see; her face is as motionless as a mask, dulled by unshining, brown eyes, which see and understand a little. Three pubs side by side declaim a high poetry from their faded signs: El Sol de Oro. El Eden, Ternura ! The Golden Sun, The Eden, Love ! Come and drink fire-water in the half-light, but distrust the knives on the sign of the disappointed dream. At the corner of the street, a lilac coach, battered by a thousand bumps, the body smashed in or ripped in shreds, is called El Bolchevique and we think it suits its name very well.
'One of the last Bolsheviks', says my companion. 'It seems to be all in, but it still runs on the Mexican roads.'
Under the shady trees in the middle of the square, the statue of Gertrudis Bocanegra, a strong woman in bronze with a tense body.
Gertrudis Bocanegra was tortured here for fighting for Independence. Juan O'Gorman painted her in his Library fresco, in white, the gashed breast bleeding like a fountain of blood. First torture, then the statue and the historians' eulogy; it's an old, humiliating experience for the human spirit. The roomy Library is a deconsecrated church. Few books, few readers, a lot of children whom an old teacher advises. The fresco exhibits its strong imagery at the back of the old choir. Like the works of Diego Rivera and Orozco, this fresco links up with the tradition of the pre-Columbian Codices which relate the annals through images. Let others say - I've heard it said - that this imagery 'isn't art' because it expresses neither metaphysics nor psychoanalysis for glossy reviews and exhibition galleries. In vivid blue, in pure red, in fire, for children and big children, it sings a terrible, legendary story with simple symbols that move readily, it's elementary and alive, it speaks to simple people and it speaks to me who am no longer so simple, and it would speak to you, too, Mr and Mrs! if you weren't so removed from the hard, real life which is neither literature nor fine editions.
The artist, Juan O'Gorman, said to me, 'I'm pleased to have painted at Patzcuaro because art must get into the pueblos. The Indians are in greater need of it than the city of business.'
The city is saturated with great art, dead art, false art, vulgar art, art prostituted, sold again, stifled. I like it that the revolutionary painter, instead of decorating opulent apartments or stocking museums, is again becoming the artisan working in a straggling village of the Michoacan so that mountain and lake people are moved for a moment when faced with the intelligible symbols of their own past. I admit that this art doesn't exhaust any of the problems of art while achieving its proper objective of an impassioned language for the masses. Aren't as many forms of art necessary as there are human varieties and human problems to project into works of art ?
Not far from here even, in a village beside the lake, I've visited a European artist, moulded by the most intellectual experiments of modern painting, whose creative will is not to express the visualised world but to extract from it the substance of an emotional and inward world, which is self-sufficient on the canvas. Rather than through his scorn of the same old stuff, the done already, seen already, killed already, and also more than through the ambition to speak for a silent people, this artist is moved by a need for pure creation, distinct from everything achieved so far, but as living as the most alive. It's good that he's working with his intellect in his seclusion. The apparent mystery of planes, lines, points, of matching colours, bathed in a day of equanimity, the apparent mystery of Onslow-Ford's compositions speaks to us in a language different from the language of the naturalistic painting which I shall call the proud servant of simple eyes. Rewarding in a different way, complying with the requirements of complementary needs.
I've lived in prison cells for a long time, too long for the art reviews to be able to deceive me as to the needs of our eyes, the astonishing magic of colour, the inexhaustible value of what is real, the unfathomable meaning of what is thought. A faithful portrait, a nude, a tree, the projection of a dream, the expression of some chosen ecstasy, the sober construction of a fragment of the ideal world belong equally to true art, for the prisoner, I know, would rediscover the world there. I think of art as of the virgin forest where the plants destroy each other and grow up together as if a supreme reconciliation was lifting them up: infinitely different plants.
Let's allow the grotesque dancers in the square to dispel these incidental reflections. Carnival day, the bright alleys tumble down to the green countryside. And now a group of musicians and maskers appears. They play for themselves, for a few neighbours; it's less a representation than a rite, the pleasure there isn't in being seen but in acting. The group feigns a farcical bullfight. A big fellow disappears under a white, cardboard bull which he carries on his shoulders and which charges ridiculous bullfighters with his little billy-goat's horns. Several are dressed like women in the long, red kilted skirts of the region, with black lines. The basis of their humour is that the woman is toying with the dangerous beast. A wonderfully muscular young man performs a sabre dance. His rig-out is equally muscular and he wears a big straw sun hat. He strikes the pavement with his machete. The bullfighting group with the bush sword go from door to door in recognition of his spirit and his seriousness, with admirable staying power for it's scorching. We don't count for him, since we don't know what these things mean.
In the centre of Patzcuaro, another group of dancers, striking in their extraordinary disguise of Spanish vagrants. Several characters dressed in rags and tatters, felt hats with wide brims turned up and scalloped like pirates' hats, one wearing a mask with black beard and nose like Cyrano, another, a devil's mask such as primitive peoples cut out of wood; the former wears trousers of torn fur, the devil, an overcoat of a brownish colour. On the other hand, those who are dressed as women have put on pink and white masks of little Breton maids with dumbfounded eyebrows and complacent and smug smiles. They play their bullfight in a frenzy, brandishing whips and swords; it becomes a dance of pirates and innocent fools. The music grinds, the cardboard bull sways and charges towards women's skirts. Their agitation on the spot is rather sinister, it gives rise to a feeling of gratuitous crime, of rape without remission or end. The dancers are so disfigured that we're relieved to see one of them take off the white girl's mask he was wearing under a yellow straw-hat in order to mop his olive brow. They'll go on like this for hours at the street corners, no noise, no cries, no laughs, no joy (at least in our sense of the word); not the least gaiety in their monotonous drive but rhythmical power, fantasy, a kind of subdued trance. Joy, gaiety, I don't know if these words can be applied to the Indian. He's always ruled by a passive energy, taciturn or prudent, violent as the desert plant's. He likes song, music of the tones of litany, cantilena, or incantation, ritual dance. Nobody laughs and we have no desire to laugh.
In the presence of these Indians we never forget that they only came in contact with European civilisation five centuries ago through the destruction of their own barbaric world. Perhaps the gaiety, the joy of living in the light-hearted forms we have experienced demand a culture longer than a few thousand years, with centuries of well-being and relative security, of wealth and successful free adventure? The French peasants described by La Bruyere as sad human cattle doubtless didn't laugh much, either. Will the survivors of the extermination camps find the joy of living again?
Lake Patzcuaro presents a spacious scene of mother-of-pearl, of grey silk woven of sky, silvery, watered. The powerlessness of words. In writing, I'm often uneasy about the unbridgeable gap between feeling, imagination and the conventional words at my command; basically, description is only a little game of comparisons and similarities, skilful to greater or lesser degree. The lake is 'like a lightly moving mirror', it is 'quite true', but why do I need to relate it to a mirror, that useful household article which it's not really like at all? The trick of the stylists and some of the surrealists lies in searching for the unexpected comparison: "The crests of voice spring from the evergreen thorn of your lips' (Benjamin Peret), that's excellent because it's spontaneous perhaps; but I doubt whether many spontaneous images (or studied images, the spontaneous false of good quality) can be treated without a concentration of the mind on this creation, concentration which must be harmful to thought, to observation, to contact with real life. Rather than dream up strange or original images, I prefer to look at things simply, try to describe them in ordinary words and pursue my themes, which are obsessing enough to do without verbal ornament Is there a middle course open to the highly talented, to the genius perhaps?
Apart from two or three books which are extraordinary successes, Bella, Suzanne et le Pacifique. hasn't Giraudoux lost his way in his sparking of glittering flashes of wit, he who brought into the taut poem of his prose such a firm preoccupation of intelligence, and such a settled elegance of thought? (Tolstoy would have scorned these intellectual games.) Thought of Giraudoux, on this lake luminously adapted to sadness, because he has just died in Paris, stifled and bitter, but persisting in working even so. About sixty. I had found him so young, tall, with a fine, strong, handsome face, a glance both penetrating and circumspect. Did he know that he embodied what was the most diamante in European literature before the deluge? Diamante here isn't a (perhaps) original adjective, but a word I hope is right: the diamond is hard, irreducible, sparkling, of pure crystalline quality, capable of reflecting innumerable aspects of the world, it only lacks the clouding confusion of life. It was precisely this confusion, which he gauged with deep feeling, that Giraudoux turned into diamond.
Our boat, rowed by a young Indian oarsman with slit eyes and a straight nose, who washes only very rarely, handsome young man for all that, sails over the lake with its reflections of sky. Over the hills in the background, the enormous bank of volcanic cloud bursts, motionless and extends in a head of mist. We land on a rocky, green island. Fishermen's nets, huts, warm bush, a path climbs to the hilltop between the loosened blocks of old lava, little maize fields, cactus bushes. Why do we feel this delight in climbing? To let the horizons expand? It's too disinterested to include the slightest element of the wish [for power]. *
Rather it's a delight in escapism, of community with the terrestrial spaces (for all contemplation implies an identification with what is beheld). We're happy to see the sides of the lake emerge under the limitless sky. Lizards and snakes, slithering in the dried grass, make a little metallic rustling noise.
At the island summit, a square, white house. Privileged spot! A band of dark-skinned children hurries away, visibly amused by us. These little Tarascans are healthy, very bronzed, laughers; half of them, boys and girls, are truly handsome. With broad, bony, yet full faces, velvety, brown eyes, frank looks, white teeth, they differ little from the Mediterranean races. Three classes of about eight children each in one fresh room with open windows. The teacher , a pleasing and dignified Indian woman in her late seventies, explains that she teaches Castilian and arithmetic; they already know Tarascan (and Tarascan has no alphabet). The kids' scripts are good; this old woman works wonders in her fishermen's hamlet. What wealth of unknown abilities do the Indian children of these lands have? And so far no one has raised the bit of money needed to assemble a few hundreds of them in a good High School which would reveal their abilities to themselves. The night-clubs in Mexico City squander more dollars every month than this venture would take.
A stretch of sky dulls, becomes laden and overcast, as if heavy rain were falling there, but the clouds are oddly purplish-blue. For several hours' journey, we're coming into an eerie land of grey, creamy desolateness, a region of pallor cast over the ground, a ghost-like region. The ash covers the plains, the woods, the crops, the dales, the roads as far as the eye can see, like a colourless and yet dark, vaguely reddish snow. Earth killed, vegetation dead. Broken-down trees, felled trees, not a bird, not an insect, it's livid, it could be Siberian tundra, but corpse-like. 'A battlefield', we say 'where the blasts of explosives would have left nothing alive any more, overwhelmed under the mineral dust.' It has indeed been a battle between subterranean fire and the living earth, the conquered earth whose sacred frailty we understand all at once. Earth, this grey-brown matter, as delicate as cerebral substance, ceaselessly in the renewal of life, in the decline of life, like cerebral substance. I remember the geologist who explained to me that the fertile earth is a creation of living organisms; that every one of its particles has taken part countless times in organic existence. Here, that's all over for a long time, the lava dust has destroyed everything.
I remember the awe-inspiring vision of the desert which was St Pierre of Martinique. The freighter passed slowly off the paradisial island with beaches fringed with coconut palms, emerald slopes which were sugar-cane plantations, gilded selvas climbing up to the cone-shaped peaks; and we suddenly saw a peculiar desert of reddish rubble, of a congealed blood tone, sometimes washed out, stretching from the top of the mountain down to the sea, in smooth flow, completely bare, completely barren. There at dawn on 8 May 1902 a thriving town still existed, involved in fishing and business and the sweet delight of being alive; and the evening of the same day, the city was no more, the villas with white pillars on the hill were no more, the fields were no more, one man, only one man survived out of 26 000. Was he the only righteous man? By a miracle the arch of a prison cellar shielded him. I've seen petrified skeletons gathered on the verge of the cosmic fire: they preserved the gesture of flight and of fright of their last instant. I've seen broken bits of bottle transformed by the incandescence of the world into crazy flowers of glass. In more than forty years, not a bush has sprung up again on the solidified lava.
We travel for hours through the wasted region, discovering the profound relativity of death. The dead leaves return to plant life. The grass, the tree in blossom spring up on the grave; and in the grave itself, decay makes new seeds of life germinate. The death of beings is materially only a return to the anonymity of being. So the spindrift's sparkling droplets return to the sea. But where elemental fire lights and carries all before it, nothing grows again, the sacred matter again becomes like the rocks before being, the mystery of life plunges back into the void. Lava of St Pierre, mineral snow of Parangaricutiro, here is the image of the final end. It rains sand and hot ash, we go on in a pallid fog. At last the massive column of smoke lifts, waving its visceral, twisted fringes.
San-Juan is dying. Fine resistance of the last men! The houses crumble, the prickly nopals give way, a weight of ash makes the roofs sag but they still hold up for a little while. There are no more gardens, just a wasteland, the like of which I haven't seen anywhere in the world, smooth surfaces, pure and dead. A few children, silent and dirty, for there is hardly any water. Greyness, everything sooted. Faces, eyes, even glances are impressed with black ash. The church might have been scarred by a bombardment. On the square, the stone cross laments in silence. At the end of an empty street, the enormous eruption mounts gloomily, invading the sky.
We set out on foot to climb the final slopes to the crater. The atmospheric currents direct the monstrous wreath of aerial lava towards the region we come from. Elsewhere, somewhere, a lava flow pours down and gathers irresistibly towards the ruins of the village. We walk under the mineral rain and this rain turns into a downpour. The sunset yields only a slanting, livid light, shaded like the light of the glaciers during the northern winter, however. The devastated plains are limitless. Only stumps of trees are left of the woods. Laborious walking, we struggle at every step against a treacherous sinking beginning. The mineral downpour patters on my hat, the ash extends a leucoma on my glasses, irritates our eyes, crunches between our teeth, we feel its roughness sticking to our bodies under our clothes. Feeling of an inexorable entombment. And what a silence of destruction! If we stopped a moment to look into ourselves from this position, perhaps we should understand the word nothingness. Let's not stop. We don't have this thirst for understanding. Our tramping is a battle of insects against a universe. We're in a hurry to arrive. Where? At the heart of nothingness?
We won't go further than the campamento. Its huts are flattened by darkness, battered by squalls of hot downpour, but tiny lamps twinkle in them. The crater is near, it appears and disappears depending on whether the brazier burns or retreats within its own night. Yellow smoke mounts on the left, white-hot gleams rise in the dark, massive eruption, they struggle against suffocation by the smoke, pale, die out. They're no longer flames but smothered reddish glares. The volcano gasps, its breathing prolongs a roar of underground gunfire. An intertwined couple has gone on a few metres, the dry storm surrounds them; the last lovers on the earth appear to us thus, on a background of smothered embers, in the unity of darkened earth, sky and fire.
With their backs to the crude bars of the booths, the Indians have the distorted, dried and crushed profiles of James Ensor figures. The mules are outlined like sea-horses in distress. A scatter of weak stars comes in through the rent in the dense sky. Last stars for last regards! It isn't a vision of cosmic force, of the world's beginning, like the one I had here the first time. It's a vision of monstrous smothering, of the world's end. Paricutin's death-throes have begun, they tell me, though some days its force still erupts in magnificent conflagrations. Death-throes? What do we know? I like this word which emphasises our oneness with the planet faced with the death of the earth.
Translated by John Manson
1. 'Victor Brauner (1903-66) was a surrealist painter.
*It's necessary to add 'for power' from the corresponding passage in Carnets (Actes Sud 1985, 79). There some words in brackets have been omitted from 'le Seisme - (J'ai pense a un vague sentiment de domination du monde)'.
* James Ensor (1860-1949) was a Belgian painter and printmaker.
Copyright The International Victor Serge Foundation.