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Bégonia, by Paul-Émile Borduas (1924) NGC/GNC[i]

Paul-Émile Borduas (November 1, 1905 – February 22, 1960)
Refus global (l’intégral, en français)
Refus global or Total Refusal (text in English)
Images: please click on Paul-Émile Borduas

Signatories: Paul-Émile Borduas, Magdeleine Arbour, Marcel Barbeau, Bruno Cormier, Claude Gauvreau, Pierre Gauvreau, Muriel Guilbeault, Marcelle Ferron, Fernand Leduc, Thérèse Leduc, Jean-Paul Mousseau,  Maurice Perron, Louise Renaud, François Riopelle, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Françoise Sullivan

Refus global

The above painting is an early work, by Paul-Émile Borduas.  In fact, it is a study and, to a certain extent, a child-like study.  Consequently, looking at this painting (watercolour on graphite), one does not suspect that Borduas would ever publish Refus global (Total Refusal), an “anti-establishment and anti-religious manifesto released on August 9, 1948 in Montreal by a group of sixteen young Québécois artists and intellectuals that included Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle.” (Refus global, Wikipedia).  Other than Borduas, only one of the signatories of the Refus global, Jean-Paul Riopelle, achieved international renown.  A number of his works were exhibited at the State Hermitage Museum, in Saint Petersburg in 2006.

The Church

“We are a small people huddling under the shelter of the clergy, who are the only remaining repository of faith, knowledge, truth, and national wealth; we were excluded from the universal progress of thought with all its pitfalls and perils, and raised, when it became impossible to keep us in complete ignorance, on well-meaning but uncontrolled and grossly distorted accounts of the great historical facts.”

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from Refus global (Total Refusal), The Canadian Encyclopedia.[ii]

How knowledge was concealed or “distorted”

I have already quoted the above paragraph.  It is an indictment of the Church.  According to Borduas, the Church excluded Québécois from the “universal progress of thought,” or it “distorted” the truth.  However, just how was knowledge concealed or “distorted.”  For one thing, in the Quebec of my childhood, books had to be approved by the Church before they were put on the shelves of libraries or sold to students.  The book was acceptable if in contained the words “nihil obstat” or imprimatur.  Before the Révolution tranquille or Quiet Revolution, one could not buy or borrow books that were prohibilited under the List of Prohibited Books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Index Librorum Prohibitorum

“The magical harvest magically reaped from the unknown lies ready in the field. It was gathered by all the true poets. Its powers of transformation are as great as the violence practised against it, as its continued resistance to attempts to make use of it (after more than two centuries, there is not a single copy of the Marquis de Sade* to be found in our bookshops; Isidore Ducasse [le comte de Lautréamont],[iii] dead for more than a century, a hundred years of revolution and slaughter, is still too strong for queasy contemporary stomachs, even those accustomed to present-day filth and corruption.”

*If you are a sensitive person, reading le Marquis de Sade could make you sick.

The Index was promulgated by Pope Paul IV in 1559 and its first version is called the Pauline Index.  The list of publications prohibited by the Catholic Church underwent modifications.  For instance, the Council of Trent‘s Tridentine Index was less severe than the Pauline Index, but even the more relaxed forms of the Index were an obstacle in the “freedom of enquiry” (Index Librorum Prohibitorum, Wikipedia).  The list, or Index, was abolished by Pope Paul VI, in 1966.

Obviously, Quebec was not threatened, in the manner Galileo was.  Catholic cosmology would not accept heliocentrism, sometimes called Copernicanism, the theory put forth in Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium cœlestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres).  Copernicus (19 February 1473 – 24 May 1543) died the year he published his findings, in 1543, but Galileo Galilei (15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642), was not so fortunate.  Galileo Galilei was found guilty of heresy by the Roman Inquisition in 1615.  He was forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest (Galileo Galilei, Wikipedia).

trips, studying abroad & “sexual experience”

“Foreign travel became more common, with Paris as the main attraction. Too distant in time and space, too lively for our timid souls, a trip to Paris was often just an excuse to spend a holiday acquiring some long-overdue sexual experience and enough of the polish provided by a stay in France to intimidate the masses back home.  With very few exceptions, our physicians, for example, whether or not they had actually made the trip, began behaving scandalously (we-have-a-right-to-make-up-for-those-long-years-of-study!).

In many cases, these trips also served as an unexpected wake-up call. Minds were growing restless, and more people began reading forbidden books, which brought some small hope and comfort.”

However, in 1948, the Index was still in force but it was losing ground in Quebec, partly because of trips and studies abroad.  Paul-Émile Borduas had travelled to France and died in France.  At the time, Québécois often went to Europe to complete their studies as Quebec universities had yet to offer complete programs.  Even now, persons who wish to do a Doctorate in Law or another degree travel to Europe.  After earning his law degree at the Université de Montréal (1943), Pierre Trudeau obtained a master’s degree in political economy at Harvard University‘s Graduate School of Public Administration.  He studied in Paris, France in 1947 at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris.  He also enrolled for a doctorate at the London School of Economics, but failed to finish his thesis (Pierre Trudeau, Wikipedia).

(please click on the picture to enlarge it)

Les Poètes maudits: Verlaine (far left), Rimbaud (second to left) depicted in an 1872 painting, by Henri Fantin-Latour

Les Poètes maudits or Accursed Poets

“Our minds were energized by the poètes maudits, who, far from being monsters of evil, dared to give loud and clear expression to feelings that the most wretched among us had always shamefully repressed for fear of being swallowed alive. The example of these men, who were the first to come to grips with everyday concerns about pain and loss, showed us the way. Their answers were so much more challenging, precise, and fresh than the age-old bromides being fed to us in Québec and in seminaries around the world.”

Borduas also mentions les poètes maudits (accursed poets).[iv]  He is referring to François Villon (c. 1431–1464), Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and, to a lesser extent, to Lautréamont and Alice de ChambrierPaul Verlaine published a book entitled Les Poètes maudits and the term has been used to describe works written in countries other than France.  Sir Alfred Hitchcock has been described as “the only poète maudit to encounter immense success.” (film director Jean-Luc Godard, in Poète maudit [Wikipedia]).  I should think the list of Poètes maudits would now include Sir Salman Rushdie (1947-).

Gérard Bessette’s Le Libraire (1960)

To understand to what degree Québécois bookstore owners were afraid of selling books listed in the Index, Gérard Bessette‘s Le Libraire (1960) is the novel one must read.  It is short, beautifully structured and clever.


[i] Photo credit: National Gallery of Canada (Borduas) & Wikipedia (Fantin-Latour, Poète maudit)
[iî] Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from Refus global (Total Refusal), The Canadian Encyclopedia.
[iii] dates:
Index Librorum Prohibitorum: 1559 (Pope Paul IV) – 1966 (Pope Paul VI)
Lautréamont, le comte de: (4 April 1846 – 24 November 1870)
Sade, le marquis de: (2 June 1740 – 2 December 1814)
[vi] French poètes maudits of the nineteenth century abused drugs and alcohol.
© Micheline Walker
November 6th, 2012
piece: « Hymn: Urbs Jerusalem, 4. AM 694b »
performers: Monastic Choir of the Abbey of Saint Pierre de Solesme,
director: Dom Joseph Gajard
Géranium, by Paul-Émile Borduas (1923)
(please click on picture to enlarge it)