Césaire, Aimé 1913–
Césaire is a West Indian poet, playwright, essayist, and editor who writes in French. His first work, Return to My Native Land, passionately presents his continuing theme—the demoralizing effect of colonialism. He and Léopold Sédar Senghor are credited with formulating the theories establishing négritude as a literary movement. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)
Césaire's location on [Martinique in the West Indies] is what distinguishes his poetry from that of his predecessors among the French symbolists and surrealists, from that of his contemporaries of African origin. His geographical position—a moral position, a rhetorical stance—is the first metaphorical premise of his poetic work. The island is the eye of a storm of images…. (p. 13)
Césaire's is the turbulent poetry of the spiritually dislocated, of the damned. His images strike through the net; only in surrealist dreams can he reveal the unbroken sonorities of the sky…. Césaire's is the Black Power of the imagination; to a younger generation of African poets …, it is Césaire rather than [Léopold Sédar] Senghor who is Negritude's true chief of state.
Césaire is similarly regarded by those who care for surrealist poetry. His is a late, vigorous manifestation of the freedoms and aspirations of "revolutionary" art. Early recognized by André Breton as "la route royale," Césaire's poetry has continued to blast its way through the stulifying thickness of things long after the movement itself has become a forgotten bore. A surrealist prophet of the strong breed, Césaire is Mosaic in his ability to perform real miracles with language because, grounded in the historical sufferings of a chosen people, his is an angry, authentic vision of the promised land. But his visionary landscapes would lack their fierce precision had not nature itself tried his descriptive powers to the breaking point. Which is again to say that the relation between his images and his environment, the ecology of his poetry, cannot be ignored. (p. 15)
Set in motion by Césaire's angry will, [the landscape of Martinique] becomes an intentional landscape. His rocks project from the deluge like crinkly black heads under the relentless eye of the sun. His towns, ships, shores and swamplands deteriorate, his sharks and scorpions destroy,...
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As soon as one begins to read Césaire, it becomes obvious that for him, unlike prose, poetry begins with extreme positions and espouses easily the most unexpected exaggerations. Giving himself entirely to the ancestral appeal of mother Africa, the poet often views négritude as virtue and whiteness as evil. His lyrical confrontation between white technology and black innocence has a quality of spontaneity about it, at once conquering and destructive. Moreover, his verbal incandescence appears to evoke a surrealistic language…. (p. 107)
[Aimé Césaire's] switch to the theatre did not really constitute an unusual metamorphosis. In writing for the stage he conserved intact the vigor of his poetry, his predilection for lyrical outbursts, and the use of Claudelian verset. Yet, in an unusual combination at which probably the Catholic poet would shiver, Claudel joins Brecht in Césaire's theatre…. [He] combines successfully a majestic and violent lyricism which re-assembles Claudelian tones, with those of the tamtam African rhythms. Part of the attraction of this fusion, experienced even by those of different political persuasions, is in the fact that it recalls chant, mime, and dance, that is to say the traditional African culture which is essentially one based on oral and gesture communication. Moreover, this style is capable of expressing in a foreign language the divinations and the prophecies of the African temperament. The poet, synthesizing and synchronizing, manages to collect and to concretize a catching unity of great pulsations in which the I and the world are soldered into a mystical and quasierotic symbolism. In order to reach such an effect, Césaire's genius finds a heretofore unexplored poetical expression, namely that of Claudel and Brecht mingled into a single voice: the most patented, partisan politics explicated in terms of motherhood ("the Congo, our mother …...
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Abandoning the documentary objectivity of Toussaint Louverture: la révolution française et le problème colonial, his history of the Haitian Revolution, Césaire brings to his play [La Tragédie du Roi Christophe] an altogether new attitude toward fact and fiction. He omits certain unflattering details about Christophe's past … in order to create an exemplary revolutionary hero at the outset. On the other hand, he leaves unmentioned the king's very positive achievements … while stressing only the destructive consequences of his acts and states of mind. This moral decline from absolute virtue to monstrosity furnishes the abruptness and excess typical of tragic theatre. Certain adjustments of historical fact and chronology permit Césaire to motivate his protagonist's early, critical choices simply and plausibly, while letting those choices develop under the pressures of particular fears infuses them with disastrous potential. Selecting episodes from history and legend with little heed to the distinctions between these two realms, the playwright exploits whatever material serves to body forth his political and social message with greater drama and theatricality than mere historicity could possibly afford. The poet and the historian in Césaire thus weld their respective disciplines in one of French America's finest literary expressions. (p. 21)
Aimé Césaire's idea of tragedy in La Tragédie du Roi Christophe is at least double, as are his philosophical aims. His main artistic problem, successfully solved in the play, is the intersection of two tragedies, one individual and the other collective. The two intermèdes, surprisingly neglected by the play's critics, hold the key to the failure of Christophe as a man and of the monarchy as a political event. As his spokesmen, Césaire chooses anonymous representatives of the people, the final arbiters of history. (p. 23)
Henry Cohen, "The Petrified Builder: Césaire's Roi Christophe," in Studies in Black Literature (copyright 1974 by Raman Singh), Vol. 5, No. 3, Winter, 1974, pp. 21-4.
Whatever changes [Césaire] has undergone … in developing his poetics and his language, we must never forget that his definition of his goal as a poet and as a politician has never changed to the extent that he has altered his outlook on colonialism. He defined himself as a political poet in 1939 when the Cahier d'un Retour au pays natal appeared in the cultural review, Volonté, he continued to write about colonialism and oppression in the most hermetic of his surrealist poems during the forties, and he is yet a political writer today, having moved to the theater which he finds to be a better forum for the expression of his political ideas. Although certainly poetry has been for him an important vehicle of personal growth and self-revelation, it has also been an important expression of the will and personality of a people. As a political poet, he attempts to make Black literature a sacred function…. (p. 387)
It is … impossible to consider the work of Césaire outside of the context of the poet's personal vision and definition of his art. He defines his past as African, his present as Antillean and his condition as one of having been exploited…. His poems and his plays, as well as his political essays, are all characterized by this sincere dedication to writing about the social and political ills which arose out of the enslavement and colonization of African peoples. To remove Césaire from this context is to ignore what he was and still is as a man and as a poet. For, although there are many other subjects to be appreciated in his work, subjects which treat the human condition in general, Césaire wrote primarily as a "propagateur d'âmes" who saw his role as a poet of authenticity—a poet who therefore faithfully evoked his condition in the world. And Aimé Césaire was, and still considers himself to be, a colonized and oppressed man. (p. 388)
Ruth J. S. Simmons, "Aimé Césaire: Colonialism and the Poetics of Authenticity," in CLA Journal (copyright, 1976 by the College Language Association), Vol. XIX, No. 3, March, 1976, pp. 382-88.
The effectiveness of Cahier d'un retour au pays natal lies in the poet's extremely rich and often novel vocabulary, his dazzling and occasionally surrealistic imagery, and, most importantly, the maintenance of a seemingly unstructured flow of verse and prose narrative. It is perhaps because of the lack of any divisions in the seventy-page poem … that critical attention has tended to sidestep to some extent considerations of structure in the work…. Césaire has, in fact, imposed a rather clearly-distinguishable structure on this most explosive poem [which] … contributes in a rather dynamic fashion to the work's almost hypnotic power. (p. 165)
[It] appears that there is a pattern of both returns and descents, and that this pattern, based on a dialectic of experience and imagination, produces the impetus for a striking metamorphosis of the narrator from observer to messiah. It is this dynamic structure which provides the vehicle for the other elements—imagery, vocabulary, rhythm, etc.—which, together, account for the tremendous impact of the work on readers today.
In the broadest sense, this pattern occurs in what we shall define as the three major parts of the poem: 1) the return to Martinique, 2) the descent into the African past and into the self in an attempt to achieve unity, and 3) the resulting synthesis of these two rather different movements which completes the metamorphosis of the narrator. (pp. 165-66)
[The] experience of the first return to Martinique supplies the psychic dynamite to launch the narrator on an imagined second return, a second return which is based on the experience of a first return, but which will go beyond this experience. It is this shift from experience to imagination in the first part of the poem, this action and reaction, which produces the larger shift from the first part to the second part, from an experiential mode to an imaginary mode based solely on the poet's knowledge of an Africa he has yet to encounter.
In the second part, the same quasi-dialectical pattern which characterizes both the basic structure of the poem and the internal dynamics of its first part still holds true. One finds the same sense of action leading to reaction to produce movement towards another level of vision. But...
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If Aimé Césaire's poetry is difficult to understand, as every student of his works is well aware, it appears to me that the difficulty comes principally from three basic factors. Briefly, these are Césaire's use of highly sophisticated vocabulary that bears witness to his solid literary education, his fixation for tortuous parataxic sentence structure and, what on the surface would appear to be, his cavalier penchant for discordant and disparate images and symbols as vehicles for poetic enunciation. The combination of these characteristics gives rise to poetry that is exceedingly personal in form and overtones despite the poet's avowed posture as the voice of the collective conscience of his people. Another...
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In 1969 the Martinican playwright Aimé Césaire published Une Tempête: d'après "La Tempête" de Shakespeare—adaptation pour un théâtre nègre. Critical opinion of the play has for the most part fallen into two types of hasty generalization. The subtitle has led some commentators to believe that Césaire's play should be considered as but one more modern version of Shakespeare, this one having ethnic overtones. Others have concluded, on the basis of an earlier statement by Césaire that he intended to write a play on the contemporary racial situation in the United States, that his Tempest must be read allegorically. These readers choose to see Martin Luther King in Césaire's Ariel and Malcolm X in...
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