Saturday, March 08, 2008

Alfred Métraux - Voodoo In Haiti (pt. 2)

Continued from the previous episode.


From 1929 to 1931, Métraux' friend Georges Bataille was the driving force behind the journal Documents, the publication which inspired this blog. The journal was the operating table where the encounter between Avant Garde art and ethnography took place: in fact, the famous ethnographer Marcel Mauss contributed a piece on Picasso. Documents also published an appreciative article on W.H. Seabrook's "The Magic Island", written by Bataille's and Metraux's close friend, Michel Leiris. Leiris credited Seabrook with being a "conscientious observer and the first man of the white race initiated into the mysteries of voodoo" and praised him for his "humane attitude" toward his subject.

Seabrook was an exceptional figure: he was a Great War veteran, a journalist and a traveller, a friend to both the Surrealists and to the notorious sorcerer Aleister Crowley, an alcoholic and a sadist. He had supposedly eaten human flesh ("like good, fully developed veal"). The Surrealist photographer Man Ray was inspired by Seabrook's sadist practices to create pornographic photographs such as "The Fantasies of Mr. Seabrook", "Lee Miller and William Seabrook" and "Homage to D. A. F. Sade", all with Lee Miller as a protagonist.

"The Magic Island" was Seabrook's second book. In keeping with his personality, it was a sensationalistic account of Haitian Voodoo - a literary Mondo Cane avant la lettre. Before publishing his book on Haitian Voodoo, he wrote for publications such as Vanity Fair and Reader’s Digest and published a book on his travels through the Middle East: "Adventures in Arabia: Among the Bedouins, Druses, Whirling Dervishes & Yezidee Devil Worshippers" (1928). "The Magic Island", part of which you can find as an e-book here, inspired the 1932 horror film classic White Zombie.

In 1933 Seabrook was voluntarily committed in order to cure his alcoholism, and he documented the experience in his 1935 book "Asylum". Despite the treatment, Seabrook remained an alcoholic. He committed suicide by a drug overdose on September 20, 1945. Thus died the missing link between the two great heresiarchs of the twentieth century, Aleister Crowley and Georges Bataille.

To be continued...

Post scriptum

Interestingly, the 1928 personal diary of Aleister Crowley contained contact information for Man Ray in Paris (link here). As far as I know, this is the only concrete piece of evidence of a direct and personal contact between the Surrealists and Crowley. The item sold for approximately $45000.

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