Césaire, Aimé (Fernand)
Aimé (Fernand) Césaire 1913–
West Indian poet, dramatist, and essayist.
Césaire's notability as a major Caribbean literary figure derives from his long surrealist poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1939; Return to My Native Land) and also from his role in formulating, along with Léopold Senghor and Léon Damas, the concept of négritude. Concerned with the plight of blacks in a world dominated politically and culturally by Western values, Césaire and other supporters of négritude urge blacks to reject assimilation and to honor instead their own racial qualities and roots. The ideals of négritude permeate Césaire's work and have also greatly influenced his successful political career.
Born and raised on the West Indies island of Martinique, Césaire studied in Paris in the late 1930s. It was here that he associated with Senghor, who later became the president of Senegal and a poet of renown, and Damas, a French Guianan whose poetry is well respected. Their work on L'etudiant noir, an influential publication among black students which promoted the common heritage of all blacks, led to the origination of négritude. In 1939, Césaire returned to Martinique and became involved in politics, serving as mayor of Fort-de-France. He also became one of Martinique's three deputies to the French parliament in 1946. Césaire espoused Communism initially but renounced it in 1956, finding it incompatible with his long-standing goal of independence for Martinique from French and foreign domination. In addition to politics and writing, Césaire founded the review Tropiques, significant for its intellectually challenging ideas about culture and politics and its advocacy of surrealism.
As with négritude, Césaire adopted surrealism as a tool to free his writing from the conventions of French literature. Jean-Paul Sartre recognized his purpose when he wrote: "Surrealism, a European poetic movement, is stolen from the Europeans by a black who turns it against them." Among the poems written by Césaire in the surrealist tradition are Return to My Native Land, Les Armes miraculeuses (1946), Soleil cou coupé (1948; Beheaded Sun), Corps Perdu (1950; Disembodied), and Ferrements (1960). Critics note that he moved away from surrealism in his drama and in his collection of revised poems, Cadastre (1961).
Césaire's first long poem, Return to My Native Land, is regarded by many critics as his masterpiece. The poem was published in Paris in 1939 but went virtually unnoticed. It was rediscovered and endorsed by André Breton, who met Césaire when he visited Martinique during World War II. Breton wrote that the poem was "nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of our time." Sartre's essay on négritude in Black Orpheus also directed attention to Césaire's work. The three movements of Return to My Native Land are composed in pounding, discordant rhythms. The first surveys the demoralizing conditions of Martinique caused by colonialism; the second involves Césaire's conscious attempt to free himself from European attitudes and to regain his négritude; and the third is his celebration of his black heritage.
Believing that drama would be more accessible to the people than the surreal, sometimes hermetic poetry he had been writing, Césaire turned to writing plays in the late 1950s. La tragedie du Roi Christophe (1963; The Tragedy of King Christophe) and Une saison au Congo (1966; A Season in the Congo) continue to propound négritude and voice Césaire's anger but utilize a more conventional dramatic structure. In the first play, Henri Christophe, the Haitian king who presided over the decolonization of Haiti in the early nineteenth century, discovers the loss of humanity caused by years of tyranny. A Season in the Congo also views history from the perspective of a black leader, centering on the martyrdom of Patrice Lamumba, leader of the newly independent Congo Republic. A third play in the collection was to have been a portrait of Malcolm X. La Tempête (1969), Césaire's adaptation of Shakespeare's play The Tempest, explores the relationship between Prospero, portrayed as a decadent colonizer, and his slaves.
In addition to a study of Toussaint L'Overture, the Haitian revolutionary liberator, two other nonfiction works exemplify Césaire's concerns. Discours sur le colonialisme (1950; Discourse on Colonialism) denounces colonialism as a civilizing force, and Lettre à Maurice Thorez (1956), a widely publicized pamphlet, explains Césaire's reasons for leaving the Communist Party. Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry (1983) demonstrates Césaire's unusual and highly emotional fusion of négritude, surrealism, and love for his native land and his African roots.
(See also CLC, Vol. 19 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)
[The following is excerpted from a translation of Jean-Paul Sartre's seminal essay on negritude, "Orphée Noir," which Sartre wrote as the introduction to Leopold Sédar-Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (1948). The translation by John MacCombie first appeared in the Massachusetts Review in 1965.]
[If the poems in Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française] shame us …, they were not intended to: they were not written for us; and they will not shame any colonists or their accomplices who open this book, for these latter will think they are reading letters over someone's shoulder, letters not meant for them. These black men are addressing themselves to black men about black men; their poetry is neither satiric nor imprecatory: it is an awakening to consciousness. (p. 7)
[Race] consciousness is based first of all on the black soul, or, rather—since the term is often used in this anthology—on a certain quality common to the thoughts and conduct of Negroes which is called Negritude…. There are only two ways to go about forming racial concepts: either one causes certain subjective characteristics to become objective, or else one tries to interiorize objectively revealed manners of conduct; thus the black man who asserts his negritude by means of a revolutionary movement immediately places himself in...
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CLAYTON ESHLEMAN and ANNETTE SMITH
Although Césaire was by no means the sole exponent of negritude, the word is now inseparable from his name, and largely responsible for his prominent position in the Third World. This neologism, made up (perhaps on the model of the South American negrismo) by latinizing the derogatory word for black (nègre) with an augmentative suffix, appeared in print, probably for the first time, in the Notebook of a Return to the Native Land: "My negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against the clamour of the day / my negritude is not a leukoma of dead liquid over the earth's dead eye / my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral." What was negritude then? A subsequent passage of the Notebook answered the question: negritude "takes root in the ardent flesh of the soil / it breaks through the opaque prostration with its upright patience." In more prosaic terms, it signified a response to the century-old problem of the alienated position of the blacks in history. Once upon a time, the blacks inhabited their homeland: a whole continent. And then, there was the diaspora which all over the world left the blacks enslaved or colonized, with neither a present nor a future nor even a language of their own. (p. 5)
The negritude movement … set as its initial goal a renewed awareness of being black, the acceptance of one's destiny, history, and culture, as well as a sense of responsibility toward the past. (p. 6)...
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Cesaire at 70. Marxist revolutionary. For a quarter century, representative from Martinique (near Grenada) to the French Assembly. For four decades, father-apologist for the ideology of negritude. Leading Third World intellectual. French playwright and surrealist poet. "Whoever would not understand me," he writes, "would not understand any better the roaring of a tiger." Now perhaps, with [The Collected Poetry by Aime Cesaire], we can begin to understand this tiger….
One now sees that there are two styles in Cesaire's life work, two minds at work: the influence of Andre Breton and other surrealists, encouraging him to take at random the mythologies and landscapes of black Africa and the Caribbean in defining negritude; and the influence of American black poets of the Harlem Renaissance, encouraging him to take images of glory from slavery and segregation in making his definition. The surrealism liberated him, but I'm not sure how effectively it served Cesaire in liberating the Third World ("my colonized hells")—and that has been one of Cesaire's motives.
As surrealist, he could write of "this mouthful of stars revomited into a cake of fireflies" and of "this knife stab of a vomit of broken teeth in the belly of the wind" and feel that he was breaking up old forms, old minds—making "a sport of nigromancy," he calls it. But these bursts, beautiful and barbarous, called more attention to him as maker...
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[What] will surely be considered one of the most important translations from the French in 1983 [is Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith's The Collected Poetry by Aimé Césaire].
The appeal of Césaire's poetry depends. I think, on its particular blend of a native vitalism, a violent energy that celebrates the irrational, the strange, even the bestial, with a French sophistication, wit, and learning. If, as Eshleman and Smith note, the poetry is "a perpetual scene of dismemberment and mutilation," if it goes so far as to celebrate cannibalism as that which "symbolically eradicates the distinction between the I and the Other, between human and nonhuman, between what is (anthropologically) edible and what is not, and, finally, between the subject and the object" …, it is also a self-consciously literary poetry, full of echoes of Rimbaud (especially the Rimbaud of the Saison en enfer), Lautréamont, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé. Again, if Césaire's rhythms are influenced by African dances and voodoo rituals, his syntax is so Latinate and his vocabulary so esoteric, that it brings to mind the reference shelf rather than the tribal dance. (p. 43)
Césaire's is nothing if not an explosive poetry. The Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, for example, is a 1,055-line exorcism (part prose, part free verse) of the poet's "civilized" instincts, his lingering shame at belonging to a country and a race so...
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[If] his orientation had been solely French, Mr. Césaire would not have been able to return from "exile" in France and find his originality as a poet. What a reader discovers in his early epic poem, "Notebook of a Return to the Native Land" [in "Aime Cesaire: The Collected Poetry"], is a concerted effort to affirm his stature in French letters by a sort of poetic one-upmanship but also a determination to create a new language capable of expressing his African heritage—a "'Black' French which even while being French would carry the 'Negro' mark," as he once defined it to the Haitian poet René Depestre. The poem's dazzling syntactical and lexical inventiveness combines elements of African and Haitian history (in 1804 Haiti became the first black republic) with reflections on contemporary racism in Paris and a vast display of botanical, zoological, medical and classical erudition, not to mention African and Creole terminology. Of course, the influence of European poets and thinkers is also there, but the rhythmic insistence of the lines reminds the reader of an African oral tradition, one that can easily be set to music. For these reasons, the poem has reached an audience far beyond France….
If none of his other collections of poems (including the most recently published, "Moi, Laminaire …," which is not in this edition) have been able to duplicate the erudition, ideological commitment and linguistic playfulness of "Notebook,"...
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