Aimé Césaire Césaire, Aimé (Fernand) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Jean-Paul Sartre

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 the position of having to meditate, either because he wishes to recognize in himself certain objectively established traits of the African civilizations, or because he hopes to discover the Essence of blackness in the well of his heart. Thus subjectivity reappears: the relation of the self with the self; the source of all poetry, the very poetry from which the worker had to disengage himself. The black man who asks his colored brothers to "find themselves" is going to try to present to them an exemplary image of their Negritude and will look into his own soul to grasp it. He wants to be both a beacon and a mirror; the first revolutionary will be the harbinger of the black soul, the herald—half prophet and half follower—who will tear Blackness out of himself in order to offer it to the world…. In the anthology which I am introducing to you here, there is only one subject that all the poets attempt to treat, more or less successfully. From Haiti to Cayenne, there is a single idea: reveal the black soul. Black poetry is evangelic, it announces good news: Blackness has been rediscovered.

However, this negritude, which they wish to fish for in their abyssal depths, does not fall under the soul's gaze all by itself: in the soul, nothing is gratuitous. The herald of the black soul has gone through white schools …; it is through having had some contact with white culture that his blackness has passed from the immediacy of existence to the meditative state. But at the same time, he has more or less ceased to live his negritude. In choosing to see what he is, he has become split, he no longer co-incides with himself. And on the other hand, it is because he was already exiled from himself that he discovered this need to reveal himself. He therefore begins by exile. It is a double exile: the exile of his body offers a magnificent image of the exile of his heart; he is in Europe most of the time, in the cold, in the middle of gray crowds; he dreams of Port-au-Prince, of Haiti. But in Port-au-Prince he was already in exile; the slavers had torn his fathers out of Africa and dispersed them. (pp. 11-12)

However, the walls of this culture prison must be broken down; it will be necessary to return to Africa some day: thus the themes of return to the native country and of re-descent into the glaring hell of the black soul are indissolubly mixed up in the vates of negritude. A quest is involved here, a systematic stripping and an "ascèse" [the ascetic's movement of interiorization] accompanied by a continual effort of investigation. And I shall call this poetry "Orphic" because the Negro's tireless descent into himself makes me think of Orpheus going to claim Eurydice from Pluto. Thus, through an exceptional stroke of poetic good luck, it is by letting himself fall into trances, by rolling on the ground like a possessed man tormented by himself, by singing of his angers, his regrets or his hates, by exhibiting his wounds, his life torn between "civilization" and his old black substratum; in short, by becoming most lyrical, that the black poet is most certain of creating a great collective poetry: by speaking only of himself, he speaks for all Negroes; it is when he seems smothered by the serpents of our culture that he is the most revolutionary, for he then undertakes to ruin systematically the European knowledge he has acquired, and this spiritual destruction symbolizes the great future taking-up of arms by which black men will destroy their chains. (p. 13)

The fact that the prophets of negritude are forced to write their gospel in French means that there is a certain risk of dangerously slowing down the efforts of black men to reject our tutelege. Having been dispersed to the four corners of the earth by the slave trade, black men have no common language; in order to incite the oppressed to unite, they must necessarily rely on the words of the oppressor's language. And French is the language that will furnish the black poet with the largest audience, at least within the limits of French colonization…. And since words are ideas, when the Negro declares in French that he rejects French culture, he accepts with one hand what he rejects with the other; he sets up the enemy's thinking-apparatus in himself, like a crusher. This would not matter: except that this syntax and vocabulary—forged thousands of miles away in another epoch to answer other needs and to designate other objects—are unsuitable to furnish him with the means of speaking about himself, his own anxieties, his own hopes. The French language and French thought are analytical. What would happen if the black spirit were above all synthetical? The rather ugly term "negritude" is one of the few black contributions to our dictionary. But after all, if this "negritude" is a definable or at least a describable concept, it must subsume other more elementary concepts which correspond to the immediate fundamental ideas directly involved with Negro consciousness: but where are the words to describe them? (p. 14)

Only through Poetry can the black men of Tenanarive and of Cayenne, the black men of Port-au-Prince and of Saint-Louis, communicate with each other in private. And since French lacks terms and concepts to define negritude, since negritude is silence, these poets will use "allusive words, never direct, reducing themselves to the same silence" in order to evoke it. Short-circuits of language: behind the flaming fall of words, we glimpse a great black mute idol. It is not only the black man's self-portrayal that seems poetic to me; it is also his personal way of utilizing the means of expression at his disposal. His position incites him to do it: even before he thinks of writing poetry, in him, the light of white words is refracted, polarized and altered. This is nowhere more manifest than in his use of two connected terms—"white-black"—that cover both the great cosmic division—"day and night"—and the human conflict between the native and the colonist. But it is a connection based on a hierarchical system: by giving the Negro this term, the teacher also gives him a hundred language habits which consecrate the white man's rights over the black man. The Negro will learn to say "white like snow" to indicate innocence, to speak of the blackness of a look, of a soul, of a deed. As soon as he opens his mouth, he accuses himself, unless he persists in upsetting the hierarchy. And if he upsets it in French, he is already poetizing: can you imagine the strange savor that an expression like "the blackness of innocence" or "the darkness of virtue" would have for us? That is the savor which we taste on every page of this book…. (pp. 16-17)

[For example, throughout one of the poems,] black is color; better still, light; its soft diffuse radiance dissolves our habits; the black country where the ancients are sleeping is not a dark hell: it is a land of sun and fire. Then again, in another connection, the superiority of white over black does not express only the superiority that the colonist claims to have over the native: more profoundly, it expresses a universal adoration of day as well as our night terrors, which also are...

(The entire section is 3541 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1970 words.)

Karl Keller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 469 words.)

Marjorie Perloff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 777 words.)

Serge Gavronsky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 369 words.)