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.)