Vodou, Possession and the Revolutionary Unconscious

(Transcription of a talk given at the Brunei gallery, School of African and Oriental Studies, January 23rd, 2004 at the opening of an exhibition celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the foundation of the Haitian Republic. Transcript published in Frozen Tears II – The Sequel, ed. John Russell, ARTicle Press, 2004)

“There are some seats at the back, people might get tired, I’m going to talk for approximately forty minutes. I’m  never sure how that will work, so if you want to sit down, sit down now if you’ve got tired legs.

Okay, I’d like to thank Leah for inviting me to give this talk, sort of at the last minute. The last time Leah invited me to give a talk it was equally exciting and I have to say that the topic of ‘Vodou, Possession and the Revolutionary Unconscious’ is something that it’s been fantastic to revisit and hopefully the pleasure of revisiting this territory will be communicated to you tonight.

I realise that not everybody here will be as familiar with Haitian culture and the issues surrounding Vodou and so I’m going to give a very, very brief intro to Haitian Vodou – and I have to say I’m not an expert, it’s not my area of expertise, and hopefully as I talk it will become clear exactly… well maybe…where my expertise lie or don’t lie.

So just a little bit for those of you who may not be too familiar with the concept of Hatian Vodou: it’s a religion that began in Haiti with the arrival of slaves there and it was practiced throughout the period of slavery, largely in secret until the Haitian Revolution, the revolution being a key point after which Vodou became more over-ground, for obvious reasons. The term ‘Voodoo’ I discussed before, in my last presentation, in terms of a Westernised concept of Vodou and all the predjudices that had become associated with the term. I explored that particular area…I’ll speak a little bit more about that later. Today I’m going to try to address something more ‘authentic’ than the artificial construct that I talked about last time. From the research I’ve been doing, the term Vodou (…I’m sure there’s people…I’m really nervous about this because I know there’s ‘experts’ here, ‘serious’ experts, so if you can correct me afterwards in anything that I get slightly wrong…I’m very…I feel like I’m walking on a tightrope).

There have been debates about the origin of the word Vodou or Vodun. There was some discussion that it came from a European sect called the Valdensians but it seems that in fact it derived from the Fon language of Benin where it has various meanings including ‘God’, ‘Spirit’ and also God and Spirits as embodied in particular objects – ‘Fetish’ objects as they have been called. I won’t go too far into the history of the term fetishism but obviously, for those of you who know, it’s a loaded term.

The general meaning that I want to give to Vodou today, the meaning I’m trying to talk about, is the meaning of an ‘invisible, mysterious and terrible force’. I want to talk of Vodou as a force that’s much more anonymous and perhaps much more material than anything that’s personified in particular spirits and it’s this notion of a material force that I’m going to be trying to address today and hopefully it will become clear why I’m doing that.

Now Vodou is important in Haitian culture …’important’? …massively important in Haitian culture, as those of you who know that know, and it enabled the deracinated slaves to preserve an African cultural heritage in the face of systematic ethnocide carried out by the colonial rulers. (‘Ethnocide’ is a term from Pierre Clastres, if any one, well…I don’t know how academic I need to be about this, so I’ll tone down the academic stuff). So ‘ethnocide’; the systematic destruction of a people’s culture. And certainly the slaves brought to Haiti were deracinated in that way and ethnocide was enacted upon them. Vodou was practiced under the cover of Catholicism which was the official religion of Haiti throughout the colonial period and afterwards. It has been subject to a series of anti-superstition campaigns and has survived the systematic attempts to eradicate it very positively and strongly as you all know.

Just very briefly, for those of you who don’t know, the pantheon of Vodou gods are called the Loas, so when I refer to the Loas, that’s what I’m talking about. Also I may mention the ‘invisibles’ which relates to this invisible force that I’m thinking about. And they reside in the ancestral home of Guinea, the mythic ancestral home of the African spirits.

Important too is possession, a fundamental aspect of Vodou. I’ll be talking about possession. Now it has to…it has to talk about this…my experience isn’t direct it’s indirect in terms of possession. And er…well…my interest in it will sort of I think come clear. It’s to do with something more…at the moment it’s gravitating towards something much more towards mediumship in European and North American contexts in the 19th century. I’m very interested in mediumship in general. Another title for this talk could have been ‘Channelling the Revolutionary Spirit’. It’s what the kind of… that’s the focus on the kind of what I’m thinking about here.

Possession is going to be a key issue, as is the issue of sacrifice, whose social role I’ll be addressing today too. Now, at the last talk I gave at the exhibition ‘Smells Like Vodou Spirit’ I talked about the misrepresentations of Haitian Vodou in Western culture. I wasn’t really talking about Vodou as an authentic cultural practice of Haiti, I was talking about the idea of Vodou in Western culture. I talked about something called the ‘Voodoo Construct’ which was made up of four, key components – enduring motifs which in the west in representations of this thing called ‘v’ ‘oo’ ‘d’ ‘oo’   (voodoo which you’re  not… you know we’re not spelling it… I mean you know what I’m saying about this voodoo spelling thing… it’s the whole [sharp intake of breath]) ‘V’ ‘OO’ ‘D’ ‘OO’ which is used to describe this sort of western conception of kind of a…a…anxieties around particular cultural phenomena and psychological phenomena. And I isolated four particular motifs then: the voodoo doll, the zombie, the witch doctor – who today will be played by a Mesmerist-hypnotist – and the possessed individual, which will today be replaced by the possessed crowd – something much more sinister and frightening than the possessed individual. So I’m about this depersonalisation, this collective depersonalisation in possession…is what I’m kind of moving towards.

Now what I did come up with in this idea of the Voodoo construct is that it’s much more about western cultural anxieties than it is about any authentic thing called Haitian Vodou. So therefore it’s not really a misrepresentation of an authentic culture. What happened in Hollywood Voodoo – and there’s not that many examples of Hollywood Voodoo – is that it’s much more about Western cultural and psychological anxieties, which loosely I would call the ‘return of the repressed’, the repressed being superstitious beliefs, beliefs in witchcraft, magic, supernatural beings and possession, key issues as to what the anxiety is undermining; fundamental notions about the properly individuated, rational and reasonable subject.

This isn’t to deny that representations of this thing ‘v’ ‘oo’ ‘d’ ‘oo’ don’t have a very strong racial character and they are also ways of playing out racial anxieties, anxieties about blackness in white western culture. But again this is not something that’s explicitly about Haiti. What I’m going to talk about today is something much more to do explicitly with Haiti.

This talk is gravitating between two poles. One pole is the revolutionary   Surrealist movement in Paris in the 1920’s and 30’s. I consider the Surrealists to have been engaged in a radical, revolutionary reconfiguration of the unconscious in opposition to conservative and reactionary constructions. They were trying to re-radicalize the notion of the unconscious. For the Surrealists – as Michael Richardson has demonstrated in his book The Refusal of the Shadow, a book of writings by Surrealists about the Carribean – Haiti serves a mythopoeic function. Now this term ‘mythopoesis’ is a term that, again, I’m going to be talking to today  (talking ‘to’? – talking ‘about’ – that’s so American. ”I’ll be talking to the concept of mythopoesis today”) I’ll try and explain why mythopoesis becomes relevant and important. It’s only recently popped into my head…”POP” like that [hit’s microphone]…and I suddenly realised that what I was talking about was mythopoesis but I didn’t know what mythopoesis was. Sometimes that happens you know, that suddenly you’re talking about something…and when I looked into the history of it it became even spookier because it was…well anyway, maybe later I’ll explain why.

I’m using the term mythopoesis to suggest that stories and myths have a power to effect reality and effect social transformation regardless of their objective, concrete factuality,  that stories have this creative power. And it’s the creative power of the story of the Haitian Revolution that I think appealed to the Surrealists in the 1920’s, especially the ceremony of Bois-Caïman, which is what I’m really going to be focussing on today. Bois-Caïman is the ceremony which, legend has it, was a Vodou ceremony which gave rise to the Haitian slave uprising of 1791. What I’m pointing towards here is a radical reconfiguration or rethinking of the unconscious which tries to remove from it the idea of it being under the mastery of a rational, individuated ego working for the reality principle. There’s a radical de-subjectivised notion of the unconscious that I’m trying to talk about today.

According to Richardson the Surrealists saw in the history of Haiti ‘the germ of a society that had the potential to challenge the ethics of international capitalism’. This is exemplified by André Breton’s visit to Haiti in 1945 and some of the consequences of his speeches in Haiti in that period.

Now the second pole of this presentation is represented by the figure of Anton Mesmer. Mesmer was a Swish – a Swiss physicist – who gave his name… (a swish physhisist?) – who gave his name to Mesmerism, which I’m sure you have some idea of. Mesmer is a key figure in the origin of the discourse of the unconscious and the development of dynamic psychiatry. The book that really put me on to Mesmer is a book by Henri F. Ellenberger, and amazing book, which I recently looked at again in the British Library, a book that I super-recommend, called The Discovery of the Unconscious. It’s an incredible book and Mesmer has an important role to play in it. I was reading this book several years ago and came across this very significant paragraph.  Now the term that Mesmer used for his practice was magnetism (from animal magnetism, the name he gave to the subtle force that permeates all things in the universe). This is at the end of the 18th century:

“In Saint Domingue (pre-Revolutionary Haiti) Magnetism degenerated into a psychic epidemic amongst the Negro slaves, increasing their agitation, and the French domination ended in a bloodbath. Later Mesmer boasted that the new Republic, now called Haiti, owed its independence to him”.

Now this really intrigued me. What was Mesmer doing claiming to have founded the Republic of Haiti?  How could this possibly be?

So I’m going to be moving between the poles of Revolutionary Surrealism and Mesmer’s claims about the founding of Haiti in 1791. And I’ve only done ten minutes.

Now my thinking in this regard is very much shaped by the writings of a Surrealist philosopher and thinker called Georges Bataille. And this is Georges Bataille [shows slide] sometime in the 1950’s. I don’t know how familiar people are with Bataille so I’ll say a little bit about his work and life.

When I was doing my doctoral research I was looking at Bataille in the context of debates about the detrimental social effects of representations of violence in the mass media. And some recurrent themes started coming up while looking at these issues, especially the issue of ‘contagion’. Another very dominant metaphor in the discourse of the social effects of mass media can be traced back to the notion of the hypnotist with certain sections of the population configured as vulnerable to suggestion, prone to this powerful influence of this ‘influencing machine’ (Victor Tausk’s term). I was looking at issues of violence in the media from this kind of perspective.

Bataille was associated with the French Surrealist movement of the 1920’s. He was excommunicated from the official movement by Andre Breton who described him as a philosopher who philosophised with a fly on his nose, which may…I won’t talk about that actually…but it’s to do with his…basically Bataille is an excremental philosopher. But that’s not important today.

Now alongside Roger Caillois and Michel Lieris, Bataille has been associated with what James Clifford, in The Predicament of Culture, describes as Ethnographic Surrealism.  In the 1930’s Bataille founded something called the College of Sociology which was devoted to a sociological understanding of the sacred and ‘the sacred’ is going to be a key term here, especially the idea of a sacred force, a material sacred force which is something we will be moving towards.

Bataille’s thinking is very much influenced by the L’Anneé school of French sociology  (Durkheim and Mauss). I’m just going to say a little bit about Durkheim and Mauss for those of you who are unfamiliar with this particular tradition within French sociology. First there’s the central role of religion in any elementary form of society and particularly the force of the sacred – that which is ‘set apart’. What’s also important for this sociology of the sacred is that the sacred is radically ambivalent from a Durkheimian position, that it partakes of both the pure and the impure. Bataille famously said that ”Every object of attraction can become an object of repulsion, and vice versa”. He also said “Nothing convinces me more than that we are bound and sworn to that which repulses us the most, that which inspires our most intense disgust”. Here we have an aesthetics of radical ambivalence associated with an elementary definition of the sacred as a social force which is both pure and impure. The other important characteristic of this notion of the sacred is that it is contagious. This is fundamental Durkheim; the (primary) prohibition on touching has to do with the contagious power of the sacred. It’s this idea of something incredibly powerful and contagious that can pass through things that is associated with the notion of the unconscious that I’m working towards.

The sacred also has a very important cohesive power too, in society. Not only does it bind societies together it also has the power to radically unbind them. I was going to show an image of Judith beheading Holofernes as in instance of what Freud used in his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego to the radical dissolution of the social formation (in this case the Assyrian army) once it’s symbolic head has been decapitated. It’s a very Oedipal-Freudian model but it’s still based on an assumption of radically disintegrating society through some sacrificial use of the sacred.

Also from Durkheim and Mauss – particularly Durkheim – we have this very strong emphasis on the fundamental role of taboo and transgression and in many ways the history of the term ‘taboo’ is similar to the term ‘vodou’ in that both describe the power imbued in objects and also the objects which contain that power.

The third issue, which is very important here, especially for Bataille, is that both Durkheim but particularly Mauss in The Gift, were interested in counter-capitalist economic systems or alternative economic systems; non-acquisitive and non-productive economic systems like the gift, like potlatch and like sacrifice. Hence the fundamental significance of sacrifice for Bataille. These are economies which involve, and put at the forefront, non-productive expenditures.

Bataille’s thought is also violently anti-idealistic and fiercely religious. So we have a kind of materialist religiosity: very violent, very aggressive, very destructive. He advocated what he called a ‘base materialist’ theory of religion which was a mixture of Hegelianism, Marxism, Nietzsche and Durkheim but that’s…don’t need that. What it emphasises is this collective social force. What he was trying to do, in all of his works, was find ways of unleashing this collective social force, this force of the sacred in the interest of social revolution. He had a very strong sense that sacrifice was one of the key modes by which this sacred force could be unleashed. I’ve spent a lot of time in my research finding out how this could possibly be and have found that Bois Caïman is perhaps the best mythopoeic example of the relationship between ritual sacrifice and the unleashing of revolutionary social force.

For Bataille revolution is a grand collective act of non-productive expenditure that resonates very strongly with the mythic story of Bois Caïman.

In the 1930’s Bataille formed a secret society called Acéphale, devoted to a religious interpretation of the works of Nietzsche. Events surrounding Acéphale are ‘shrouded in secrecy’ but what the group seems to have been involved in is the promotion of the idea of ‘myth’. ‘Myth’ and ‘secrecy’ come together here. Rumour has it they were planning to enact a ritual human sacrifice at a place in Paris by a tree which had been struck by lightening. (There’s a book about this by Maurice Blanchot called The Unavowable Community).  This very much following a kind thinking that Freud expressed too: that society is founded on a crime committed in common and that the blood oath is incredibly important in binding groups together, especially revolutionary groups, revolutionary cells, explosive revolutionary  cells, which is what Bataille was trying to initiate in Paris in the 1930’s.

(Where am I now? I’m here.)

So we have an idea who Bataille was and where he was coming from in the 1930’s. Now we have to go back to Haiti in 1789.

This is an image from Alfred Metraux’s Voodoo in Haiti [a black and white photograph of a Vodou initiate drinking blood from the neck of sacrificed chicken], a close friend of Bataille’s throughout his life.

I’m going to give a brief overview, and I know I’m going to be out of my depth here because I know there’s a lot of experts on Haitian society and the Haitian revolution who will correct my scant knowledge of the formal history of that revolution. But I want to make the point here that after the French parliament’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of the new Republic – which was partly written by Lafayette, a figure who will come up more in a little while – that obviously there were free blacks and mulattos in Haiti at that time who were interested in extended the revolutionary cause to Haiti including Vincent Ogé. Ogé is a key figure in the prelude to the Haitian revolution, travelling to Paris to petition the new parliament to recognise Haiti within the auspices of the new revolutionary government. Ogé travelled back to Haiti via London and South Carolina with a view to extending  the revolutionary franchise to blacks [correction: mulattos] in Haiti. This was obviously met with violent resistance by the white regime and Ogé was publicly tortured and executed as a sign to anyone who was thinking about rising up against the regime at the time.
(How am I doing?…is this about right?…okay).
The revolutionary army in Haiti would be under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture. But the slave army was organised by Boukman who was himself a Vodou priest (as legend has it). Boukman is definitively associated with the Bois Caïman ceremony. There’s debate as to when exactly the ceremony took place. (I was speaking to Leah today who told me that some historians are now saying it didn’t actually happen. Which is great actually. In fact it’s better in a way that it didn’t happen for its mythopoeic value). But (according to other histories) it took place on either August 14th or August 22nd – there’s an eight day gap of uncertainty about when exactly it was.

A number of slaves gathered in the forests of Bois Caïman and a Vodou ceremony was held in which a pig was sacrificed and everybody swore a blood oath to overthrow their white slave-masters. And sometime in the next 8 days the slave uprising was inaugurated.

I’m going to skip the mythopeoic section. But what I want to do…you want me to do the mythopoesis thing?..okay.

Mythopoesis. Nice word. It was coined by a British psychologist called Frederik Myers. Now Myers is a really key figure because he was head of the SPR, the Society for Psychical Research in London. There’s this whole thing about Myers and Freud. Freud kept secret his belief in telepathy throughout his life because it was bad PR. Ernst Jones is telling him “Listen Sigmund, really don’t play up this telepathic thing because it’s really going to ruin the reputation of psychoanalysis” whereas Frederik Myers is an absolute believer. Now what the point of this is that the entire history of the development of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis and dynamic psychology throughout the 19th century is absolutely based on the bedrock of mediumship. It’s about possession, it’s about somnambulism, it’s about people having visions and it’s about an attempt to account for those visions. Mesmer himself began by saying “I can account for somnambulism on purely materialistic and mechanistic grounds.
Therefore all the possessions, the hallucinations and the visions can be explained without a superstitious belief system. We can move on a purely scientific basis”. However, throughout the 19th century, the scientists and psychologists were moving in and out of belief on this issue of whether or not people were actually channelling the dead, or channelling entities and what was actually going on in these situations.
Ellenberger’s book is brilliant for this and it’s just really very clear. So I was very surprised when I found that my research into mythopoesis took me back to Frederik Myers. There’s a whole thing about Myers. He wrote a book called Human Personality and its Survival Beyond Death, a massive two volume work in which he argued that mythopoesis refers to the primary level of unconscious processes. It means the capacity of humans to ‘weave’ (I won’t go into a kind of…you all know) to ‘weave’ and ‘fabricate’ fantasies and stories at a base level. So the base level of the unconscious is a kind of fabricating fantasy machine.

Now this has to do with the fact that many of the people they were examining hysterics. Now just read ‘mediums’ for ‘hysterics’. From one perspective they’re hysterics – if you’re a materialist psychologist – and from the other perspective, of believers, they’re mediums who are channelling entities, or they have access to channels of information which we are otherwise remote from. So they’re exploring mediums, schizoid mediums, who have dissociated they’re personalities, and are able to fabricate stories. The psychological and psychoanalytic communities were split as to whether these stories were inventions – very, very clever fabrications – or authentic examples of some form of channelling. And I don’t want to go…this is the kind of territory…I’m not sure. That’s just where things are at at the moment.

So mythopoesis comes to describe the creative power of myth, that stories can have a real transformative power in society. Now we can try to explain that in lots of ways, we can have a materialist explanation but what we can’t deny is that stories have power. Whether they’re true or not they work. And it’s this working function of the myth that I’m interested in, especially the working function of a revolutionary   myth.

So here’s an account of Bois Caïman by Alfred Metraux. Apparently this account is from a Haitian school book from the 1950’s. This is the story told to school children in Haiti. And I love it because it’s the most lavish and lurid version I could find. This is how it goes. (28.47)

‘To put an end to all holding back and to obtain absolute devotion he, Boukman, brought together a great number of slaves in the glade of Bois Caïman near the red mountain. When all were assembled a storm broke. Lightening scribbles the low dark clouds with brief radiance. In a few minutes the torrential rain begins to turn the ground into a marsh while a savage wind twists the moaning trees until even the thickest branches are wrenched off and crash to the earth. In the middle of this impressive scene, motionless, petrified in sacred awe, the assembled slaves behold an old Negress rise up, her body shaking from head to foot. She sings, she pirouettes and over her head she brandishes a huge cutlass. Now, in the great congregation an ever more profound stillness, more bated breath, eyes ever more burning fixed on the Negress, show how the crowd is rapt. At this moment a black pig is produced. The din of the storm drowns his grunts. With one vivid thrust the inspired priestess plunges her cutlass into the animal’s throat. The blood spurts – and is gathered smoking to be distributed in turn, to the slaves: all drink, all swear to obey Boukman.’

So how does this relate to Anton Mesmer and what bearing does it have on the claim that the revolution was brought about by Mesmerism-Gone-Wrong in Haiti. Well, we need to know a little bit more about Mesmer. He was a Swiss physicist who developed that idea that physical and mental illness was explainable by the influence of the planets, bodies on bodies, a purely materialist account of physical disease, especially mental disease. He famously had a competition with an exorcist called Johann Joseph Gassner in which he cured more people than his opponent. So Mesmer won and said “Look, I’m the greatest and I can cure people without the need of outmoded religious and superstitious ideas”. Pure materialism, pure physics, pure enlightenment stuff. He identified this stuff called magnetic fluid that permeated the entire universe. Unbalances in this fluid led to un-health and disease. Now this substance was in the whole universe so social phenomena were also affected by imbalances in magnetic fluid. It can be stored, it can be channelled, it can be moved around. What I’m trying to say is that there’s something about this magnetic fluid which has the qualities of the terrible force of Vodou or of sacred energy in general. It doesn’t have any bite for Mesmer but it could have. It could be like magnetism with teeth or something.

Now, he was working with possession and he could account for possession without a demonological theory, which is very important. He set up these things called Societies of Harmony, in Paris, which is where you went to be cured by the Mesmeric practice. They set up these things called baquets, these big vats of water with galvanized rods immersed in them and everyone held the rods and the Mesmerist would go around – because he was imbued with magnetic power – and when he touched people with a rod they would go into convulsive spasms. The blocked energies would be released and they’d achieve health, a balance of energies. I’m sure you’re familiar with this. It’s been around a while this idea.

Many of the Societies of Harmony, and one in particular  – called the Kornmann group  (Kornmann was an Alsation banker who in fact bankrolled the Societies of Harmony as the major financier) – involved people who were later to be very active in the French revolution, including Lafayette who was a member of this group; people like Jean Louis Carra, Jean-Jaques Brissot, Nicolas Bergasse (who was in communication with Voltaire and Rousseau). The societies were revolutionary  hotbeds, so much so that some of the theories of the Mesmerists, such as Jean Louis Carra in his Examén Physique du Magnetism Animal, from 1795  could claim things like this;

‘The entire globe seems to be preparing itself by a pronounced upheaval in the course of the seasons for physical changes. In societies the masses are agitating  now more than ever to disentangle at last the chaos of their morals and their legislation’.

So we find here a revolutionary Mesmerist saying that global energies, manifesting themselves through the masses will make them ready to rise up, and push through and create the crisis through which harmonious (social) balance would be achieved. That’s the general idea that’s going on here. Now the Societies of Harmony  in Paris were shut down eventually  because of their revolutionary  reputation amongst other things after an official investigation by a team of researchers.

I just want to put two things together here and maybe this is a little bit cheesy but I’m going to do it anyway. This is a description of the patients attending the Societies of Harmony written by one of the inspectors who were sent to check things out, to see if there was any ‘truth’ to the theory of animal magnetism.

‘A third class of patients are so agitated and tormented with convulsions, extraordinary by their frequency, their violence and their duration. As soon as one patient has commenced others are affected by the same symptoms characterised by precipitate and involuntary motions of all the limbs or the whole body, by contraction of the throat, by sudden affectation of the abdomen and by a distraction and wildness in the eyes, by tears, screams, hiccupping and by immoderate laughter’.

So, it sounds like a good party really.

Now this is a description by Metraux of a crise de possession. In the Societies of Harmony the state of convulsions was also called a crisis. It’s the same language of a subjective, personal and individualised crisis that can be extended to the entire society. So this is Metraux on Vodou possession:

‘The crisis of possession emits a power disturbingly contagious to unstable and nervous temperaments. That is why the sight of a possession sometimes causes others to break out, not only amongst the servants of the gods, who are prepared to be mounted but also amongst those who have come along as visitors or out of sheer curiosity’.

I know that putting these two examples together means I’m treading dodgy ground  but  it illustrates the point I’m trying to make quite simply.

I checked out the Haiti connection with the Mesmerists and it seems that New Orleans was the hub through which Mesmerism made its way to Haiti. The banker Kornmann received 2,400 livres from Saint Domingue which means there were at least ten members of the society in Haiti prior to the revolution. But the key connection is a figure called the Marquis de Puysegur, an aristocratic Mesmerist rather than a Jacobin. The aristocratic Mesmerists of the Puysegur family were in Haiti. The brother of the Marquis – who was famous for developing the idea that one could put someone into a hypnotic trance and then, while in the trance, the patient would predict the outcome of their cure (basically this psychoanalysis in another form) – took Mesmerism to Haiti.  He developed a technique whereby a tree is magnetised and you get the peasants on your estate (because it’s the aristocrat’s Mesmeric duty to distribute his curative magnetic force freely to the peasants to cure them) to hold the branches of the tree and the magnetic power is passed through them. One of the biographers of Mesmer claimed that it was during one of these sessions that a group of Negro slaves confused Mesmerism with witchcraft ‘giving rise to wild orgies and sorcerers dealing in black magic, and the authorities banned the practice’ (Walmsley).

I’m getting close to the end now and I’m wondering “Can I do this?”. I realise that the thesis that the historical construction of the unconscious and the development of a reactionary conservative theory of the unconscious during the 19th century is shaped in some way by the mythopoeic value of the Haitian revolution  (and Vodou’s role in it) hasn’t been proven in this presentation. But if you look at figures like Gustave Le Bon, whose book The Crowd, was an absolutely fundamental influence on Freud and theories of crowd psychology, on the development of Public Relations, Edward Bernay’s idea that the masses are slaves of their spinal columns, therefore we need to manipulate them because we can’t bring about…etc, etc. This is clear. Le Bon described crowd members as being like ‘women, children and savages’ (and by savages he clearly means blacks), lower down on the evolutionary scale, ‘slaves of their unconscious impulses’, prone to contagious mimetic behaviour, much more prone to these crises, these explosive behavioural patterns. And this was of course a sign of their evolutionary inferiority.  Also they can’t distinguish between fact and fiction, reality and hallucination, which every sane, clear minded, white academic of the 19th century was easily able to do. An explicit text in this regard is Spencer St.John’s book on Haiti, written in 1884, about the same time as Le Bon’s book on The Crowd. Now I know these are very different texts but St.John’s book is the most explicitly racist account of Haitian society that you’re likely to come across (I’m sure some of you are familiar with this book). He argued that unless white, capitalists were allowed to invest in Haiti its society  was destined to ‘regress to the state of an African tribe’. Of Toussaint L’Ouverture  he wrote, ‘The story of Toussaint is so remarkable as to almost confound those who consider the Negro to be an inferior creature incapable of rising to genius’. Almost. This is so explicit. St. John was a pro-abolitionist because abolition would enable us to see, once and for all, whether blacks are equal to whites on the Labour market. This is the kind of attitude that is shaping crowd psychology at the end of the 19th century. White civilization over Black savagery is very  the dominant ideological polarity  that’s going on here.

(It’s always hard to do a good ending isn’t it?)

I’m talking about an image of the revolutionary unconscious as an invisible and terrible force of the sacred, channelled through myth and carrying fluid collective bodies, en masse (and this is the bit, how does it work? ) and overthrowing despotic top-down power structures. There’s a metaphor which recurs with this; the metaphor of the Volcano. (Another book on Haiti describes Louis the 16th  as not knowing that he was sitting on a volcano until the lava – and this is a very weird play on the metaphor – the ‘lava’ arose up and strangled him).

So I’m going to close now, and the last word goes to C.L.R. James, from his preface to The Black Jacobins which comes very close to what I’ve been trying to talk about.

And this is the quote from 1938:

‘In a revolution, when the ceaseless, slow accumulation of centuries bursts into volcanic eruption, the meteoric flares and flights above are a meaningless chaos, and lend themselves to infinite caprice and romanticism unless the observer sees them always as projections of the subsoil from which they came. The writer has sought not only to analyse but to demonstrate in their movements the economic forces of the age, their moulding of a society and politics, of men in the mass and individual men and the powerful reaction of these on their environment on one of those rare moments when a society is at boiling point and therefore fluid’.”

End

Thanks to Adrian Liebowitz and Leah Gordon

7 Responses to “Vodou, Possession and the Revolutionary Unconscious”


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  2. wael kfouri Says:

    Clearly your open minded and receptive to other ideas. Many people in the online community are a little more totalitarian. im gonna bookmark ur site ;) Of course– and I probably shouldn’t even have to say this– people are free to run their own websites as they see fit. But I get the highest value from blogs where either the author’s writing is so outstanding that the lack of comments isn’t material a combination of good writing and good comments leaving my personal Research website if you dont mind wael kfoury

  3. Glenda Says:

    OH crud! i just typed a nice comment and as soon as i submitted it it come up blank! Please tell me it worked properly? I do not want to sumit it again if i do not have to! Either the blog bugged out or i am just stuipd :), the latter doesnt surprise me lol.

    • codeless88 Says:

      Hi Glenda, It’s taken me a while to get to grips with the comments function of the page. I have it set for moderation. Please try again.


  4. [...] Thanks to Roberto for the invitation to speak. Roberto and I met – for the second time in fact – at the Ghetto Biennale which took place in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in December 2009. The lecture I will give today is a response to discussions generated since then. It is also something of an up-dated version of a lecture I gave at Goldsmith’s College in London in 1999 which Roberto also happened to attend and a supplement to a talk given at the Brunei gallery, School of African and Oriental Studies in 2004 at the opening of an exhibition celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the foundation of the Haitian Republic. A transcript of that talk can be found here. [...]


  5. Hi, John, this elicits further discussion.
    . Kate Ramsay gave an interesting paper on Mesmer in Jamaica in November. Will try to get a copy and relay. Have you seen work by Moore on Mesmer? Re Bois Caiman (Bwa Kayman) Leon Hoffman is one of those who claims it (probably did not happen, but David Geggus is quite sure Something happened. Two dates may indicate two different but related sessions. See Rachel Beauvoir on Bois Caiman. I’ll send you section on Mesmer from my new book after Ghetto Biennale is over. Wish so much I could be there..
    Will you be in or near London in January?

    • John Cussans Says:

      Hi Legrace, Thanks so much for this. I will check the links when I get back to the UK. It looks like I probably won’t get to give the Mesmerism/Vodou talk at the Biennale as it doesn’t fit with the program. But I will write it up fully and post it on the blog when I get back. And yes. I will be in London in January. Much to catch up on. Looking forward.

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