It's still pretty pungent stuff, and was notably scorned in Anglo-Canada, where few followed in its wake aside from some of London's anarchist artists of the 1960s. It was also received with what amounted to indifference by the Surrealists in Paris. Borduas' correspondence with André Breton (1896-1966) around the time is a curious read, as was Alfred Pellan's (1906-1988) reaction, but I'm not going to analyze either here.
For French speakers, here is a rather nice, if depressing, little documentary from The NFB about what Refus unleashed.
And finally, the text:
Descendants of modest French Canadian families, labourers or petit-bourgeois, from our arrival on this soil up to the present day kept French and Catholic by resistance to the conqueror, by an irrational attachment to the past, by self-indulgence and sentimental pride and other compulsions.
A colony trapped and abandoned as long ago as 1760 beneath unscalable walls of fear (familiar refuge of the vanquished) -- its leaders taking to sea or selling themselves to the conqueror, as always when the time is ripe.
A little people, huddled to the skirts of a priesthood viewed as sole trustee of faith, knowledge, truth and national wealth, shielded from the broader evolution of thought as too risky and dangerous and educated misguidedly, if without ill intent, in distortions of the facts of history, when complete ignorance was impracticable.
A little people, grown from a Jansenist colony, isolated and cowed; and defenceless against the horde of clerics of France and Navarre -- out to perpetuate in this fear-ridden place (fear-as-the-beginning-of-wisdom!) the prestige and advantages of a Catholicism despised in Europe. Heirs of a mechanical papacy, invulnerable to redress, great masters of obscurantism, their institutes of learning still hold sway through an exploiting use of memory, static reason, and paralysing intention.
A little people, that multiplied in generosity of flesh, if not of spirit, in the north of this immense America, with its sprightly band of golden-hearted youth and its superficial morality; spellbound by the annihilating prestige of remembered European masterpieces, and disdainful of the authentic creations of its own oppressed.
Our destiny seems harshly fixed.
But, revolutions, foreign wars, disturb the most efficient blockade of the spirit, however disarming.
Some pearls slip through, inevitably.
Political struggles become bitter. Against all prediction, the clergy acts rashly.
Rebellions follow, executions result, and impassioned first ruptures occur between the church and some of the faithful.
The breach widens, shrinks, then widens further.
Travel abroad increases. Soon, Paris is the rage. But, too far in time and space, too volatile for our timorous souls, it is often only the occasion for time off to complete a retarded sexual education and to acquire, on the basis of a stay in France, facile authority for improved exploitation of the crowd upon return. For example, the conduct of our doctors, with very few exceptions, is scandalous (after all, those-long-years-of-study-have-to-be-paid-for, whether they have travelled or not!).
Revolutionary works, when by chance they come t o hand, seem but the sour grapes of a few eccentrics. The academics acquire prestige from our lack of information.
Exceptionally, among these travels, some produce awakenings. The normally unthinkable is found increasingly. Forbidden readings circulate, spreading solace and hope.
Minds are enlightened by discovery of the poètes maudits: those who, without being monsters, dared express loud and clear what the unhappiest among us stifle quietly within, in shame and in terror of being overwhelmed. Illumination comes from the example of these men -- the first to acknowledge contemporary anxieties, so painful and pathetic -- whose insights prove of greater value, in their disturbing precision and freshness, than the interminable litanies charmed in the land of Quebec, or in all the seminaries of he globe together.
The limits of our dreams become no longer what they were.
We are dizzied by the fall of tawdry finery so recently obscuring truth. The shades of hopeless bondage gives place to pride in a freedom obtainable by vigorous struggle.
To hell with the goupillon and the tuque. They have seized back a thousand times what once they gave.
Beyond Christianity, we attain the burning human brotherhood on which they have closed the door.
The reign of hydra-headed fear has ended.
In the wild hope of effacing its memory, I enumerate:
fear of facing prejudice -- fear of public opinion -- of persecutions -- of general disapproval;
- fear of being alone, without the God and the society which isolate you anyway;
- fear of oneself -- of one's brother -- of poverty;
- fear of the established order -- or ridiculous justice;
- fear of new relationships;
- fear of the superrational;
- fear of necessities;
- fear of floodgates opening on one's faith in man -- on the society of the future;
- fear of forces able to release transforming love;
- blue fear -- red fear -- white fear; links in our shackles.
From the reign of debilitating fear we pass to that of anguish.
One would have to be of stone to remain indifferent to the grief of deliberately feigned gaiety, of psychological reflexes of the cruellest extravagance: transparent disguises of poignant, present despair (how is it possible not to cry out on reading the news of that horrifying collection of lampshades made of tattoos stripped from unfortunate captives, at the whim of some elegant woman; not to moan at endless accounts of torment in the concentration camps; not to chill to the marrow at descriptions of Spanish prisons, unjustifiable reprisals and cold-blooded revenge?) How can one not quiver before the cruel lucidity of science?
Overwhelming anguish is replaced by nausea.
We are sickened by the apparent inability of man to correct evils, by the uselessness of our endeavours, by the vanity of our past hopes.
For centuries, the bountiful products of poetic activity have been doomed on the social level; violently rejected by the upper strata of society, or warped irrevocably by them and falsely assimilated.
For centuries, splendid revolutions, their hearts high in hope, have been brutally suppressed after a moment of delirious optimism -- scarcely noticeable interruptions in our slighter to headlong descent:
- the French revolutions
- the Russian revolution
- the Spanish revolution
aborted in international confusion, despite the wishful thinking of os many simple souls around the world.
Death triumphing over life, again.
How can one not be nauseated by the liars, by the forgers, by the makers of the stillborn objects, by the tricksters, the obsequious, the opportunistic, the false prophets of humanity, the polluters of springwater, or by rewards obtained for brutal cruelty?
By our own cowardice, impotence, fragility and lack of understanding?
By the disasters of our loves....
By the constant preference for cherished illusion over objective mysteries. Where is the source of all the cursed efficiency which man imposes on himself, but in his fury to defend a civilization shaping the destinies of dominant nations?
The United States, Russia, England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain: sharp-fanged inheritors of a single decalogue, and identical gospel.
The religion of Christ has dominated the universe. What has been done with it when sisterhoods become exploiting little sisters?
Remove the motivation of competition for raw materials, prestige and authority, and nations might live harmoniously. But grant supremacy to whom you wish, give world control to whom you please, and the same deep-rooted patterns will emerge -- although perhaps with different details.
They signify the end of Christian civilization.
The next world war will witness its collapse, by destroying any possibility of international competition.
Its state of decadence will even strike those eyes that are still closed.
Its decomposition, begun int he XIVth century, will nauseate the most insensitive.
Its loathsome exploitation, effective for so many centuries at the cost of life's most precious qualities, will be finally revealed to all its victims, docile slaves, the more eager to defend it as they were made more miserable.
There will be an end to putrefaction.
Christian decadence will have dragged down in succession all the peoples, all the classes it has touched, from first to last, from top to bottom.
It will end in shame at the inverse of its achievements of the XIIIth century.
In the XIIIth century, when the peak of moral evolution had been reached, intuition gave way to reason: gradually, to preserve a supremacy which had once been spontaneous, acts of faith gave place to calculation. Exploitation began in the very bosom of religion through it s self-interested use of petrified sentiments and through the rational study of glorious texts.
This exploitation of reason spread to all society's activities, in response to demands for maximum production.
Faith, taking refuge in the heart of the crowd, became its only hope of revenge and ultimate compensation. But there,also, expectations were dulled.
In high places, mathematics succeeded obsolete metaphysical speculation. The spirit of observation succeeded that of transfiguration.
The method hastened some impending progress in limited fields; it encouraged the birth of our versatile machines with their vertiginous speed, it allowed he straight-jacketing of our tumultuous rivers -- and decadence seemed amiable and necessary, even if inviting the destruction of the planet. Scientific instruments brought us unanticipated means to investigating and regulating what was too small, too quick, too vibrant, too slow, or too huge for us. Our reason enabled us to over-run the world, but a world in which our harmony was lost.
The rending of psychic from rational faculties is close to paroxysm.
Material progress, reserved for the propertied classes but elsewhere held in check, has allowed political evolution with the guidance of religion (later without it), yet without renewal of our sensibility, our subconscious -- without allowing the emotional evolution of the crown -- which alone could have rescued us from the deep Christian rut.
Society, born in faith, will perish by the weapon of reason: intention.
The inexorable regression of collective moral power to a strictly individual and sentimental level has helped to weave an amazing cloak of abstract knowledge -- behind which society hides to devour at ease the fruit of its crimes.
Two world wars have been necessary to bring us to a recognition of this absurd state. The terror of the third will be conclusive. The H hour of total sacrifice is close upon us. Europe's rats already try to build a bridge of frantic escape over the Atlantic. But events will catch up with the greedy, the satiated, the self-indulgent, the appeasers, the blind and the deaf.
They will be put down without mercy.
A new collective hope will be born.
Already it commands the ardour of exceptional lucidities, anonymously bonded by a new faith in the future and the collectivity to come.
Magic booty, magically wrested from the unknown, lies at our feet. It has been gathered by the true poets. Its power to transform is measured by the violence shown against it and by its resistance in the end to exploitation. After more than two centuries, de Sade is still not found in bookstores, and Isidore Ducasse, dead for more than a century of revolutions and carnage, remains too virile for flabby contemporary consciences, in spite of the cesspool customs of today.
The items of this treasure reveal themselves, inviolable, to our society. They remain the incorruptible, sensitive legacy for tomorrow. They were ordained spontaneously outside of and in opposition to civilization, and await freedom from its restraints to become active in the social scheme.
Therefore, our duty is simple.
To break definitively with all conventions of society and its utilitarian spirit! We refuse to live knowingly at less than our spiritual and physical potential; refuse to close our eyes to the vices and confidence tricks perpetuated in the guise of learning, favour, or gratitude; refuse to be ghettoed in an ivory tower, well-fortified but too easy to ignore; refuse to remain silent -- do with us what you will, but you shall hear us; refuse to make a deal with la gloire and its attendant honours: stigmata of malice, unawareness or servility; refuse to serve and to be used for such ends; refuse all intention, evil weapon of reason -- down with them, to second place!
Make way for magic! Make way for objective mysteries! Make way for love! Make way for necessities!
To this global refusal we contrast full responsibility.
The self-seeking act is fettered to its author; it is stillborn.
The passionate act breaks free, through its very dynamism.
We gladly take on full responsibility for tomorrow. Rational effort, once in its proper place, will be available again to disengage the present from the limbo of the past.
Passions shape the future spontaneously, unpredictably, necessarily.
The past is contingency of birth, it thus cannot be sacred. We are always quits with it.
It is naive and misleading to consider the men and things of history through the magnifying glass of fame, which lends them qualities beyond the reach of clever academic monkey tricks, although such qualities come automatically when man obeys the deep necessities of being -- when he elects to become an new man in a new age (the definition of any man, of any time).
End the cascade of blows from the past which annihilates both present and future.
It is enough to disengage yesterday from the needs to today. A better tomorrow will be but the unforeseeable consequence of the present.
No need to concern ourselves with it before it comes.
Final Settlement of Accounts
The organized forces of society reproach us for our eagerness to work, our inflated anxieties, our excesses; such things insult their tolerance and gentleness, and their good taste (generous and full of hope and love, merely from habit).
Friend of the present regime suspect us of supporting the "Revolution". Friend of the "Revolution" call us merely rebels, saying we "pretest against what now exists but only to transform it not to displace it."
As delicately as this is put, we think we understand.
It is a question of class.
We are credited with the naive intention of wanting to "transform" society by exchanging the men in power with others of the same kind -- and of ignoring the friends of the "revolution"!
But the only distinction between these "friends" and those presently in power is that they belong to different classes -- as if a change of class implied a change of civilization, a change of desire, a change of hope!
They would devote themselves at fixed salary (plus a cost-of-living bonus) to the organizing of the proletariat. So far, so good: the trouble is that, once in power, besides low wages they will foist on the same proletariat always, and always in the same manner, a renewable levy of supplementary charges, without discussion.
We recognize, nevertheless, that they might still be serving history. Salvation will come only after the most excessive exploitation.
And this excess they will achieve.
They will achieve it naturally, with no need of special talents, and the feasting will be lavish. We have refused to participate, already.
Therein lies our "guilty abstention".
For them, the rationally organized spoils (and everything in the affectionate bosom of decadence); for us, the unpredictable passion; for us, the risk of all in global refusal.
(Inevitably each social class will succeed to the government of the people, unable to avoid the path of decadence. And, equally for certain, as history affirms, only a full blossoming of our faculties and a perfect renewal of their emotional sources will extricate us -- directing us towards the civilization impatient to be born.)
All of them, those in power, and those who want the power, would pamper us, if we agreed to overlook their crookedness by wilfully restricting our activities.
Integrity depends on pulling down our visors, plugging our ears, lacing our boots and boldly clearing a way through the pack of them, whether of left or right.
We prefer being cynical spontaneously, without malice.
Nice people smile at the meagre success of our exhibitions. They are amused to think themselves the first to spot some bargain prices.
If we continue to hold such shows, however, it is not in the naive hope of making fortunes. We know the wealthy stay away from us. They could not with impunity make contact with incendiaries.
In the past, misunderstanding of exactly that has generated sales.
We believe this text will help dispel misunderstandings for the future.
If our activities increase, it is because we feel the urgent need for union with others.
It is there that success has been gained.
Yesterday, we were alone and indecisive.
Today, a group exist with wide, courageous branches that extend beyond frontiers.
A magnificent duty falls on us: history elects us to preserve the precious treasure it bequeaths.
Real things require relationships repeatedly renewed, or challenged, or put to question: relationships impalpable, exacting and dependent on the vivifying force of action.
Our treasure is poetic resource: the emotional wealth on which the centuries to come will draw. It cannot be passed on unless it is transformed, and lacking this it is deformed.
Let those who are inspired by this endeavour join us.
We foresee a future in which man is freed from useless chains, to realize a plenitude of individual gifts, in necessary unpredictability, spontaneous and resplendent anarchy.
Until then, without surrender or rest, in community of feeling with those who thirst for better life, without fear of set-backs, in encouragement or persecution, we shall pursue in joy our overwhelming need for liberation.
Source: Paul-Émile Borduas, Écrits/Writings 1942-1958 trans. and eds. François-Marc Gagnon and Dennis Young (Halifax: 1978), 45-54.
Signataires du Refus Global
Magdeleine ARBOUR, Marcel BARBEAU, Bruno CORMIER, Claude GAUVREAU, Pierre GAUVREAU, Muriel GUILBAULT, Marcelle FERRON-HAMELIN, Fernand LEDUC, Thérèse LEDUC, Jean-Paul MOUSSEAU, Maurice PERRON, Louis RENAUD, Françoise RIOPELLE, Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, Françoise SULLIVAN.