Aimé Césaire

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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...

(This entire section contains 754 words.)

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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

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[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 universal. In this sense, these black men are re-establishing the hierarchy they have just upset. They don't want to be poets of night, poets of vain revolt and despair: they give the promise of dawn; they greet

               the transparent dawn of a new day.

At last, the black man discovers, through the pen, his baleful sense of foreboding:

                      Nigger black like misery

one of them, and then another, cries out:

               Deliver me from my blood's night

Thus the word black is found to contain all Evil and all Good, it covers up almost unbearable tension between two contradictory classifications: solar hierarchy and racial hierarchy. It gains thereby an extraordinary poetry, like self-destructive objects from the hands of Duchamp and the Surrealists; there is a secret blackness in white, a secret whiteness in black, a vivid flickering of Being and of Non-being which is perhaps nowhere expressed as well as in this poem of Césaire:

My tall wounded statue, a stone in its forehead; my great inattentive day flesh with pitiless spots, my great night flesh with day spots.

The poet will go even further; he writes:

Our beautiful faces like the true operative power of negation.

Behind this abstract eloquence evoking Lautréamont is seen an extremely bold and subtle attempt to give some sense to black skin and to realize the poetic synthesis of the two faces of night. When David Diop says that the Negro is "black like misery," he makes black represent deprivation of light. But Césaire develops and goes into this image more deeply: night is no longer absence, it is refusal. Black is not color, it is the destruction of this borrowed clarity which falls from the white sun. The revolutionary Negro is negation because he wishes to be complete nudity: in order to build his Truth, he must first destroy others' Truth. Black faces—these night memories which haunt our days—embody the dark work of Negativity which patiently gnaws at concepts. Thus, by a reversal which curiously recalls that of the humiliated Negro—insulted and called "dirty nigger" when he asserts his rights—it is the privative aspect of darkness that establishes its value. Liberty is the color of night.

Destructions, autodafés of language, magic symbolism, ambivalence of concepts: all the negative aspects of modern poetry are here. But it is not a matter of some gratuitous game. The black man's position, his original "rending," the alienation that a foreign way of thinking imposes on him, all oblige him to reconquer his existential unity as a Negro—or, if you prefer, the original purity of his plan—through a gradual "ascèse," beyond the language stage. Negritude—like liberty—is a point of departure and an ultimate goal: it is a matter of making negritude pass from the immediate to the mediate, a matter of thematicising it. The black man must therefore find death in white culture in order to be reborn with a black soul…. It is not a matter of his knowing, nor of his ecstatically tearing himself away from himself, but rather of both discovering and becoming what he is.

There are two convergent means of arriving at this primordial simplicity of existence: one is objective, the other subjective. The poets in our anthology sometimes use one, sometimes the other, and sometimes both of them together. In effect, there exists an objective negritude that is expressed by the mores, arts, chants and dances of the African populaces…. The poetic act, then, is a dance of the soul; the poet turns round and round like a dervish until he faints; he has established his ancestors' time in himself, he feels it flowing with its peculiar violent pulls; he hopes to "find" himself in this rhythmic pulsation; I shall say that he tries to make himself "possessed" by his people's negritude; he hopes that the echoes of his tamtam will come to awaken timeless instincts sleeping within him…. The black men of Africa … are still in the great period of mythical fecundity and French-language black poets are not just using their myths as a form of diversion as we use our epic poems: they allow themselves to be spellbound by them so that at the end of the incantation, negritude—magnificently evoked—may surge forth. This is why I call this method of "objective poetry" magic, or charm.

Césaire, on the contrary, chose to backtrack into himself. Since this Eurydice will disappear in smoke if Black Orpheus turns around to look back on her, he will descend the royal road of his soul with his back turned on the bottom of the grotto; he will descend below words and meanings,—"in order to think of you, I have placed all words on the mountain-of-pity"—below daily activities and the plan of "repetition," even below the first barrier reefs of revolt, with his back turned and his eyes closed, in order finally to touch with his feet the black water of dreams and desire and to let himself drown in it. Desire and dream will rise up snarling like a tidal wave; they will make words dance like flotsam and throw them pell-mell, shattered, on the shore. (pp. 17-20)

One recognizes the old surrealistic method (automatic writing, like mysticism, is a method: it presupposes an apprenticeship, exercises, a start along the way). One must dive under the superficial crust of reality, of common sense, of reasoning reason, in order to touch the very bottom of the soul and awaken the timeless forces of desire: desire which makes of man a refusal of everything and a love of everything: desire, the radical negation of natural laws and of the possible, a call to miracles; desire which, by its mad cosmic energy, plunges man back into the seething breast of Nature and, at the same time, lifts him above Nature through the affirmation of his Right to be unsatisfied. Furthermore, Césaire is not the first Negro to take this road. Before him, Etienne Léro had founded Légitime Défense….

However, if one compares Léro with Césaire, one cannot help but be struck by their dissimilarities, and this comparison may allow us to measure the abyss that prevents a black revolutionary from utilizing white surrealism. Léro was the precursor; he invented the exploitation of surrealism as a "miraculous weapon" and an instrument for reconnaissance, a sort of radar with which one probes the depths of the abyss. But his poems are student exercises, they are mere imitations: they do not go beyond themselves; rather, they close in on each other…. (p. 21)

The purpose of surrealism is to rediscover—beyond race and condition, beyond class, behind the fire of language—dazzling silent darknesses which are no longer opposed to anything, not even to day, because day and night and all opposites are blended in them and suppressed; consequently, one might speak of the impassiveness and the impersonality of the surrealist poem, just as there is a Parnassian impassiveness and impersonality.

A poem by Césaire, on the contrary, bursts and wheels around like a rocket; suns turning and exploding into new suns come out of it: it is a perpetual going-beyond. It is not a question of the poem becoming part of the calm unity of opposites; but rather of making one of the opposites in the "black-white" couple expand like a phallus in its opposition to the other. The density of these words thrown into the air like stones from a volcano, is found in negritude, which is defined as being against Europe and colonization. What Césaire destroys is not all culture but rather white culture; what he brings to light is not desire for everything but rather the revolutionary aspirations of the oppressed Negro; what he touches in his very depths is not the spirit but a certain specific, concrete form of humanity. With this in mind, one can speak here about engaged and even directed automatic writing, not because there is any meditative intervention but because the words and images perpetually translate the same torrid obsession. The white surrealist finds within himself the trigger; Césaire finds within himself the fixed inflexibility of demands and feeling…. Césaire's words are pressed against each other and cemented by his furious passion. Between the most daring comparisons and between the most widely separated terms, runs a secret thread of hate and hope…. In Césaire, the great surrealist tradition is realized, it takes on its definitive meaning and is destroyed: surrealism—that European movement—is taken from the Europeans by a Black man who turns it against them and gives it rigorously defined function…. Césaire's originality lies in his having directed his powerful, concentrated anxiety as a Negro, as one oppressed, as a militant individual, into this world of the most destructive, free and metaphysical poetry at the moment when Eluard and Aragon were failing to give political content to their verse. And finally, negritude-object is snatched from Césaire like a cry of pain, of love and of hate. Here again he follows the surrealist tradition of objective poetry. Césaire's words do not describe negritude, they do not designate it, they do not copy it from the outside like a painter with a model: they create it; they compose it under our very eyes: henceforth it is a thing which can be observed and learned; the subjective method which he has chosen joins the objective method we spoke about earlier: he ejects the black soul from himself at the very moment when others are trying to interiorize it; the final result is the same in both cases. Negritude is the far-away tam-tam in the streets of Dakar at night; voo-doo shouts from some Haitian cellar window, sliding along level with the roadway; the Congolese mask; but it is also … [a] poem by Césaire,… [a] slobbery, bloody poem full of phlegm, twisting in the dust like a cut-up worm. This double spasm of absorption and excretion beats out the rhythm of the black heart on every page of this collection.

What then, at present, is this negritude, sole anxiety of these poets, sole subject of this book? It must first be stated that a white man could hardly speak about it suitably, since he has no inner experience of it and since European languages lack words to describe it. I ought then to let the reader encounter it in the pages of this collection and draw his own conclusions about it. But this introduction would be incomplete if, after having indicated that the quest for the Black Grail represented—both in its original intention and in its methods—the most authentic synthesis of revolutionary aspirations and poetic anxiety, I did not show that this complex notion is essentially pure Poetry. I shall therefore limit myself to examining these poems objectively as a cluster of testimonies and to pointing out some of their principal themes. Senghor says: "What makes the negritude of a poem is less its theme than its style, the emotional warmth which gives life to words, which transmutes the word into the Word." It could not be more explicitly stated that negritude is neither a state nor a definite ensemble of vices and virtues or of intellectual and moral qualities, but rather a certain affective attitude towards the world. (pp. 22-5)

[Here] is what Césaire tells us about it:

  My negritude is not a stone with its deafness flung out against the clamor of the day
  My negritude is not a dead speck of water on the dead eye of the earth
  my negritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral
  it plunges into the red flesh of the ground
  it plunges into the ardent flesh of the sky
  it perforates the opaque pressure of its righteous patience.

Negritude is portrayed in these beautiful lines of verse more as an act than as a frame of mind. But this act is an inner determination: it is not a question of taking the goods of this world in one's hands and transforming them; it is a question of existing in the middle of the world. (p. 25)

Jean-Paul Sartre, "Black Orpheus," translated by John MacCombie, in The Black American Writer: Poetry and Drama, Vol. II, edited by C.W.E. Bigsby, 1969. Reprint by Penguin Books Inc., 1971, pp. 6-40.∗


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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)

In the fifties negritude was to become as much of an arena as engagement had been in the 1940s. In retrospect, there were deep differences in the way various people conceived it—too many to do more here than just allude to some of the positions. Senghor was understood—perhaps wrongly—to consider black culture as the product of a black nature. If as a result of some covenant with nature, black Africans were a chosen race, they were bound to be both more secure about their roots and less alienated than deported blacks. Senghor's poetry and many contemporary African novels tend to prove this point. Césaire seems to have shared Senghor's view in the early part of his career—and he was later to be criticized for it by a younger generation of black intellectuals. In an interview with Jacqueline Leiner in 1978, however, he maintained that for him black culture had never had anything to do with biology and everything to do with a combination of geography and history: identity in suffering, not in genetic material, determined the bond among black people of different origins. If history had made victors of the blacks, there would not be what he called elsewhere "a greater solidarity among black people."

But whether innate or acquired, the characteristics of black culture on which all interpreters of negritude agreed were antipodal to the Western values of rationalism, technology, Christianity, and individualism. They spelled not the control of nature by reason and science but a joyful participation in it; not its control by technology but a coexistence with other forms of life; not the Christianity of the missions but the celebration of very ancient pagan rites; not the praise of individual achievement but the fraternity and communal soul of the clan, the tribe, as well as the love of ancestors. "A culture is born not when Man grasps the world, but when he is grasped … by it." Let us insert here that for Césaire (as for many other non-African blacks) the African heritage had been acquired through books and espoused spiritually—which made it perhaps an even more aggressive ideal. (pp. 6-7)

The idea was also to find a theoretician in the High Priest of postwar French letters, Jean-Paul Sartre. His essay, "Orphée Noir" ("Black Orpheus") [see excerpt above], which served as an introduction to Senghor's Anthology of the New Black and Malagasy Poetry (1948), gave negritude an existential and Hegelian imprimatur in a period when every aspect of intellectual life had to be viewed in those terms….

Sartre's definition of negritude was not the last one. It was, in fact, to become the touchstone of most subsequent definitions. Later exponents of the concept found Sartre too race conscious and not sufficiently class conscious. What they wanted was a classless society in which all races would be equal, and not a raceless society. Some (like Césaire himself more recently) felt that the concept of a black essence reeked either of determinism or of mysticism and that negritude would cease to exist in a world with more equitable economic conditions. (p. 7)

From our perspective, there is no easy answer: negritude is a dynamic concept. How relevant it was and will remain in the future depends on the situation and history of each particular colonized group. Politically speaking, as a number of African nations acquired their autonomy in the fifties and sixties, negritude lost some of its spark. Culturally speaking the future is open. Possibly some black literature will be written in native vernaculars; or, on the contrary, it is conceivable that young nations might lose their inferiority complex to the point where using the literary tools of their former masters will no longer be an issue. It is true that negritude was at its most potent in countries colonized by the French, that is, in which there existed a rigorously structured and policed official language. Former colonies in which the official language is English seem less sensitive to the problem. Some countries, such as Cuba, have chosen to emphasize the hybrid aspect of the culture and to promote a mestiza literature. Finally, black literature might be lured by its own success into joining the mainstream of Western literature. (p. 8)

When all is said and done, an introduction should answer the question: why read Césaire? Why read poems that require long exegeses, which stern readers have in the past deemed, at best, a brilliant intellectual game, at worst, arrogantly obscure, and riddled with typographical, grammatical, or semiotic idiosyncracies? We would like to reply that these flaws are not, in the case of Césaire, artificial and derivative tricks but simply occasional alterations inherent in sustained profundity and abundance. In the long run, only being "inside" a poem can truly expound Césaire's poetry. It is impossible, of course, to reconstitute a paradigm of what can only be an individual and multiform experience. But, were we pressed to do it, we would say that the first element characteristic of Césaire's poetic voice is its solemnity….

A second characteristic might be an exquisitely subtle blend of ferocity and tenderness. It is plain that Césaire is a master at turning the screw: a poem like "Fangs" depicts suffering as "map of blood map of the blood / bled raw sweated raw skinned raw…." (p. 18)

Finally, another characteristic is Césaire's ability to surprise. We are delighted by this "truly wild disappearance / tropical as an apparition of a nocturnal wolf at high noon" which abruptly succeeds the quasi-epic tone of "Visitation"; a "pretty nymph sheds her leaves amidst the manzanilla milk and the accolades of fraternal leeches" at the end of the otherwise grim "Day and Night."… Césaire has the ultimate cleverness to appear surprised himself by his surprises, thus making them more credible. It is as if, in spite of him and almost behind his back, the world in its boundless luxuriance performed magical tricks for the common pleasure of writer and reader. (p. 19)

We have chosen these three characteristics because together they seem to speak to the contemporary psyche better than would a homogeneous voice: the prophetic to our need for certainty and authority; the mixture of cruelty and tenderness to our need of being alternatively object and subject; the surprise to the child in us. We prefer to think of ourselves as unresolved. We also prefer to think of ourselves as fabricators of meanings, and the "courage of the imagination" Césaire requires of his readers amply fulfills the bricoleurs in them.

Those still unconvinced by the aesthetic case must not overlook the equally compelling historical and moral one. In the Tragedy of King Christophe Césaire has the main character say that one has to demand more from the blacks than from any other race: more work, more faith, more enthusiasm, more persistence. As one looks back over Césaire's amazing career, it appears that he has lived up to his hero's ideals and even added one to the list: vision. On the black child from the slums of Basse-Pointe an almost messianic role was bestowed. For he was to become a bridge between the twain that, in principle, should never meet, Europe and Africa. Thus he symbolizes and sums up what is probably the twentieth century's most important phenomenon: the powerful surge next to the old and the new world, of a third world both very new and very old. Rather than aiming at the lowest common denominator between the two cultures. Césaire sought to fulfill his Africanism with "the zeal of an apocalyptic wasp," and the adjective here conveys adequately the extreme quality of this choice. As he pointed out again in his recent interview (Le Monde, December, 1981), however, it was by borrowing European techniques that he succeeded in expressing his Africanism in its purest form.

Césaire seems to have been constantly driven by the vision that the end result of this Africanization would be an elemental man in whom all mankind would recognize itself. Thus he claimed to have demonstrated Hegel's idea that the universal is not the negation of the particular, that it is by going deeper into the particular that one reaches the universal. In making the universal man black (and vice versa) Césaire was paradoxically putting the finishing touch to an image of man toward which Europe itself had been groping in the wake of Rousseau, Diderot, and the Enlightenment and which continued to develop through nineteenth- and twentieth-century anthropology. In expanding Man's image, he gave the white world, which had educated him, a hundredfold more than what he had received from it. And, as a bonus, he gave a more genuine meaning to the traditional claim of the French language to be a universal one. (pp. 19-20)

Negritude may well be, as we suggested before, politically outdated. Césaire himself (in the haunting and hieratical "Lay of Errantry") hints that Africa's glory may be only an ancient tale in a now closed wizard's book. But perhaps it is precisely there, in its visionary status, that lies the real beginning of negritude. For the Africa of oil wells, supertankers, commodity markets, gigantic dams, and labor problems may need its guiding light even more than it needs tractors, guns, and capital, if it is not to become just another alienated industrial world. Negritude has the potential to remain, according to Camus' prophetic paradox, the end that, in turn, shall be justified only to the extent that the means are justifiable.

Césaire's career as a political figure or as a poet is far from completed. He is still at the helm of his native island and in the interview in Le Monde mentioned above he announces the forthcoming publication of another collection of poems, "Moi, laminaire." He might surprise us in both these domains. But we venture to say that in neither will it be by revolutionary stances. To him, revolution and violence were only a phase. The readjustment of his political goals so as to focus on the development of Martinique and on local issues and the increasingly elegiac tone of his poetry are symmetrically significant of his present position. (p. 20)

Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, in an introduction to The Collected Poetry by Aimé Césaire, translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, University of California Press, 1983, pp. 1-28.

Karl Keller

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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 than they did to the world he wanted to make. For decades he found the surreal aesthetically revolutionary, but in the face of the torture and the suffering, he has pretty well abandoned it as a luxury…. Cesaire shocked with his surrealism but probably had more of an effect as shocking champion of negritude, the international brotherhood of all black men…. This side of Cesaire caught on all over the world—but less as a man with a program than a man with an exemplary voice.

Cesaire's more political poems make connections—with the reader, with systems of thought, with history, with society. He calls them "sublime excoriations of a flesh fraternal and whipped to the point of rebellious fires." (pp. 1, 10)

The most recent poems of Cesaire, especially his "Ferraments," are more politically aggressive, louder, more anxiously reaching for an international audience, more the shouts of the atoning liberator….

Cesaire, like Whitman, waits for a response from his people, waits for new life from them, waits for them to follow him….

As Cesaire himself has moved from his early platforms on through to reform, from the hope of the artful to the uses of art to inspire hope, he has, in various ways, been trying to say that there is, in the awful, awe-filled blackness of blackness, plenty of light. (p. 10)

Karl Keller, "A Radical Poet with a Political Program," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 4, 1983, pp. 1, 10.

Marjorie Perloff

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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 abject, servile, petty and repressed as is his. A paratactic catalogue poem that piles up phrase upon phrase, image upon image, in a complex network of repetitions, its thrust is to define the threshold between sleep and waking—the sleep of oppression, the blind acceptance of the status quo, that gives way to rebirth, to a new awareness of what is and may be. Accordingly, it begins with the refrain line, repeated again and again in the first section of the poem, "Au bout du petit matin …" ("At the end of the little morning," a purposely childlike reference to dawn, which Eshleman and Smith awkwardly render as "At the end of the wee hours"), followed by a strophe that characterizes the poet's initial anguish, an anguish always laced with black humour….

Here we have the hallmarks of Césaire's style: impassioned direct address ("Va-t'en"), name-calling ("gueule de flic," "gueule de vache"), parallel constructions that aren't quite parallel ("les larbins de l'ordre et les hannetons de l'espérance"), hyperbole ("la force putréfiante des ambiances crépusculaires"), oxymoron ("dans mes profondeurs à hauteur inverse du vingtième étage des maisons les plus insolents"), violent imagery ("sacré soleil vénérien"), and above all the chant-like rhythm created by the repetition of word and sound, as in "je nourrissais … je délaçais … j'entendais" or in "de l'autre côté du désastre, un fleuve de tourterelles et de trèfles."

There is really nothing comparable to this mode in American poetry. In the long catalogue poems of Allen Ginsberg and Imamu Baraka, we find similarly impassioned repetition, parallelism, hyperbole; again, in a sequence like Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares, we meet imagery of perhaps equal violence and stringency. But Césaire's poetry is quite different from Ginsberg's on the one hand or Kinnell's on the other in its curious conjunction of an intense realism (in the course of the Notebook, the topography of Martinique, its climate, architecture, and inhabitants are graphically described) with a surrealism that seems so inevitable it may almost escape our attention.

Who is it, for instance, that the poet meets "Au bout du petit matin"—a cop or a "bedbug of a petty monk"? Or both? If the former, then the paradise lost he cannot attain is one of a primitive society that had not learned the need for law-enforcement. If the latter, the enemy is primarily Christianity. These are, of course, part and parcel of the same complex for Césaire, but the point I am trying to make is that his is a language so violently charged with meaning that each word falls on the ear (or hits the eye) with resounding force. (p. 44)

What strikes me as especially remarkable [in Cahier d'un retour au pays natal] and in Césaire's surrealist lyrics in Les Armes Miraculeuses … of 1946 is the total absence of sentimentality or self-pity. He can see himself as [victimized] … without casting about for a scapegoat. For, as the "I" comes to realize in the course of the poem, "Nous vomissure de négrier" ("We the vomit of slave ships") must exorcise our own cowardice, fear, and hypocrisy before change can take place…. (p. 45)

Marjorie Perloff, "The French Connection," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, January-February, 1984, pp. 40-5.∗

Serge Gavronsky

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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," each has reaffirmed Mr. Césaire's reputation as a poet. He is able to deal with classic Surrealist strategies involving a whole range of unexpected associations—at times the consequence of automatic writing, as in "Miraculous Weapons" (1946) and "Solar Throat Slashed" (1948)—as well as with political ideas and purely lyrical turns, as in "Ferraments" (1960) and "Noria" (1976). When the poet calls himself a barbarian, the reader should be reminded of the connotation "primitive" but also of the condition of the black in a white world….

With the publication of this collection of Mr. Césaire's poetry, his influence will no longer be limited to negritude. He has found his rightful place among the major French poets of this century.

Serge Gavronsky, "Black Themes in Surreal Guise," in The New York Times Book Review, February 19, 1984, p. 14.


Césaire, Aimé (Poetry Criticism)


Césaire, Aimé (Vol. 112)