Aimé Césaire Césaire, Aimé (Vol. 112) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Aimé Césaire 1913–

(Full name Aimé Fernand Césaire) West Indian poet, dramatist, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Césaire's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 19 and 32.

An acclaimed Caribbean poet, dramatist, and statesman, Césaire's fervent advocacy for black self-determination and heritage has won him international recognition. During the 1930s and 1940s, Césaire emerged as a founder and leading proponent of negritude, an artistic and political movement that sought to reclaim traditional black culture and racial identity in the wake of Western colonial ascendancy. The poetry of Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1956; Return to My Native Land) is considered his masterpiece; also highly regarded are the three dramas La Tragedie du roi Christophe (1963; The Tragedy of King Christophe), Une saison au Congo (1966; A Season in the Congo), and Une tempete (1969; A Tempest). Much of his work reveals the influence of Surrealism, which Césaire adopted to liberate himself from European rationalism and literary convention. A revolutionary artist and lifelong political activist, Césaire's forceful opposition to imperialism, racism, and the assimilation of Western culture among non-Western people have exerted a profound influence on contemporary world literature.

Biographical Information

Césaire was born in Basse Pointe, Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean where, during his childhood, he experienced the poverty and political oppression of the island's black citizens. An exceptional student, Césaire won a scholarship to travel to Paris in the early 1930s and studied literature and philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure. There he met Senegalese poet Leopold Sedar Senghor and founded, along with classmate Leon-Gontran Damas, L'Etudiant noir, the periodical in which the term negritude is believed to have originated. In 1939, the first version of Césaire's Return to My Native Land appeared in the magazine Volontes; a second version, with a preface by French Surrealist Andre Breton, was published in 1944, followed by the definitive edition in 1956. Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, Césaire returned to Martinique with his wife, Suzanne Roussy, whom he married in 1937. Both worked as teachers at Césaire's former school in Fort-de-France while Césaire became increasingly active in politics and the Communist party. In 1945, Césaire was elected mayor of Fort-de-France and deputy for Martinique to the French National Assembly. He founded Tropiques, a literary journal significant for its advocacy of black culture and Surrealism, in 1941. Over the next decade, Césaire published several volumes of poetry, including Les armes miraculeuses (1944; The Miracle Weapons), which contains a versified version of the drama Et les chiens se taisaient (1956; And the Dogs Were Silent), Soleil cou-coupe (1948; Beheaded Sun), and Corps perdu (1949; Disembodied), as well as a series of essays condemning Fascism and European imperialism in Discours sur le colonialisme (1950; Discourses on Colonialism). Though Césaire renounced his affiliation with the Communist party in 1956, for reasons explained in the widely circulated pamphlet Lettre a Maurice Thorez (1956; Letter to Maurice Thorez), he maintained an active role in local Martinique politics. In 1957, Césaire founded the Martinique Progressive Party and was elected its president the next year. During the 1960s, he produced additional volumes of poetry, Ferrements (1960; Shackles) and Cadastre (1961), and his three major dramas—The Tragedy of King Christophe, A Season in the Congo, and A Tempest. Césaire's plays and verse were collected and published in Oeuvres completes (1976; Complete Works), with the exception of poetry from Moi, laminaire (1982). Césaire continued to serve as mayor of Fort-de-France until 1983 and deputy for Martinique until 1993.

Major Works

Césaire's preoccupation with the pernicious effects of decolonialization, cultural alienation, and the reconciliation of past and present pervades both his poetry and drama. Return to My Native Land is a long, surrealist poem in which Césaire relates his painful search for self-identity and meaning in the history and decayed culture of his people. The first part describes his early life on Martinique and the appalling poverty and social conditions that fostered apathy and self-loathing among its French-speaking black inhabitants. In the second part, Césaire expounds the principles of negritude as a remedy for such dejection, extolling the importance of racial self-awareness and reconnection with lost African heritage, which he celebrates in the final movement. Through the discovery of negritude, Césaire abandons passive disengagement to assume a powerful messianic voice that rallies the cause of all black people. As in much of his poetry, including that found in The Miracle Weapons, Beheaded Sun, and Disembodied, Césaire relies on the exotic imagery of African flora and fauna, rich vocabulary, discordant internal rhythms, and the combative tone of revolt to forge his idiosyncratic verse. In Shackles, whose title suggests the iron fetters of slavery, Césaire began to move away from hermetic, surrealist poetry in favor of a more accessible style through which he addressed political events in Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States during the 1950s. However, in the 1960s Césaire turned to theater to speak to his audiences more directly. His three major dramas are didactic, politicized presentations of important historical or literary figures that achieve archetypal symbolism. The Tragedy of King Christophe portrays the demise of nineteenth-century monarch Henri Christophe during the period of Haitian decolonialization. After mounting a successful revolution against French colonists, Christophe crowns himself king. However, his cruelty and despotic abuse of power eventually lead to rebellion and, finally, to his suicide. Through the failure of Christophe, an ambitious and well-meaning tyrant, Césaire satirizes aristocratic grandeur and the heroic pretensions of post-colonial dictators in Africa and other Third World countries. A Season in the Congo recounts the tragic death of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Congo Republic and an African nationalist hero. The play follows Lumumba's efforts to free the Congolese from Belgian rule and the political struggles that eventually led to his assassination in 1961. Césaire depicts Lumumba as a sympathetic Christ figure whose conscious martyrdom reflects his self-sacrificing humanity and commitment to pan-Africanism. An adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, Césaire's A Tempest examines Western colonialism and racial conflict through the relationship between Prospero and his slaves. Césaire's version portrays Prospero as a decadent imperialist, Ariel as a pacifistic mulatto slave, and Caliban as an unwilling black slave who openly rebels against Prospero and demands to be referred to as "X." After Caliban's attempted revolution fails, both he and Prospero declare their resolve to remain on the island and to resist each other with violence if necessary. As in his other works, Césaire contrasts the insidious machinations of neo-colonial subjugation with the liberating aspirations of negritude.

Critical Reception

Césaire is renowned as a leading voice of post-colonial emancipation and black self-affirmation. For his role in the definition of negritude, especially as found in Return to My Native Land, he is considered among the most important black writers of the postwar period. Andre Breton wrote that Return to My Native Land is "nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of our time." John Paul Sartre also offered high praise in his seminal essay on negritude, "Black Orpheus." While disenfranchised people around the world found profound inspiration in Césaire's poetry, some critics note elements of obscurantism stemming from his affinity for Surrealism and dense vocabulary. Others cite apparent contradictions in Césaire's reliance on European language and literary resources to exalt black self-sufficiency and racial integrity. Yet, the tension derived from such diverse formative influences is viewed as essential to the development of Césaire's unique personal aesthetic. As a playwright, Césaire has won widespread approval from critics and Third World audiences. His dramas have been compared to those of Bertolt Brecht, particularly The Tragedy of King Christophe and A Season in the Congo, for their instructive use of black comedy and satire. A visionary artist and legendary political leader in the West Indies, Césaire became an indispensable model for literary revolt and cultural reclamation among contemporary African and Caribbean writers.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Les armes miraculeuses [The Miracle Weapons] (poetry) 1944
Soleil Cou-Coupe [Beheaded Sun] (poetry) 1948
Corps perdu [Disembodied; also translated as Lost Body] (poetry) 1949
Discours sur le colonialisme [Discourses on Colonialism] (essays) 1950
Cahier d'un retour au pays natal [Return to My Native Land; also translated as Notebooks of a Return to My Native Land and Notebooks on Returning Home] (poetry) 1956
Et les Chiens se Taisaient: Tragedie [And the Dogs Were Silent: A Tragedy] (drama) 1956
Lettre a Maurice Thorez [Letter to Maurice Thorez] (letter) 1956
Ferrements [Shackles] (poetry) 1960
Cadastre (poetry) 1961
Toussaint L'Ouverture: La revolution francaise et le probleme coloniale [Toussaint L'Ouverture: The French Revolution and the Colonial Problem] (historical study) 1960
La tragedie du roi Christophe [The Tragedy of King Christophe] (drama) 1963
Une saison au Congo [A Season in the Congo] (drama) 1966
Une tempete: d'apres "le tempete" de Shakespeare [A Tempest] (drama) 1969
Oeuvres completes [Complete Works] (poetry; three volumes) 1976
Moi, laminaire (poetry) 1982
The Collected Poetry of Aimé Césaire (poetry) 1983

Abiola Irele (essay date 27 January 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Post-Colonial Negritude: The Political Plays of Aimé Césaire," in West Africa, January 27, 1968, pp. 100-01.

[In the following essay, Irele discusses Césaire's preoccupation with post-colonial politics in The Tragedy of King Christophe and A Season in the Congo.]

For some time Aimé Césaire's work has been devoted entirely to a cause; it represents in fact the most sustained effort so far to explore in literary terms the realities of the black man's experience in modern times as well as his intimate responses to his historical condition. The colonial situation has imposed a certain limitation upon Césaire's angle of vision upon the world, resulting...

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Alfred Cismaru (essay date 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Négritude in Selected Works of Aimé Césaire," in Renascence, Vol. 26, 1974, pp. 105-11.

[In the following essay, Cismaru offers an overview of Césaire's political concerns and literary accomplishments.]

White man, white because he was man, white as the day, white as truth, white as virtue, lit creation like a torch and unveiled the secret and white essence of things and beings. Today, the Black look at us, and we don't dare look back; now Black Torches light the world and our white heads are nothing but fragile street lights shaking in the wind … our whiteness is becoming a strange and pale varnish which prevents our skin from...

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Marjorie Perloff (review date January-February 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The French Connection," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 13, January-February, 1984, pp. 40-5.

[In the following excerpt, Perloff offers praise for Césaire's poetry and its English translation upon publication of The Collected Poetry of Aimé Césaire.]

I turn Finally to what will surely be considered one of the most important translations from the French in 1983—Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith's Collected Poetry of Aimé Césaire. A number of these translations had already appeared in Paul Auster's anthology, but it takes more than a handful of short poems to give the reader a sense of Césaire's astonishing poetic power, and the new California...

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James A. Arnold (review date July 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Twentieth Century Stepchild," in American Book Review, Vol. 7, July, 1985, p. 3.

[In the following review, Arnold praises the translation The Collected Poems of Aimé Césaire and discusses Césaire's perceived lack of national identity.]

Aimé Césaire was heralded by the Times Literary Supplement in 1982 as one of the three most important poets of the twentieth century, alongside Artaud and Pasolini. This brilliant translation of his Collected Poetry (1939–1976) by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, handsomely illustrated with line drawings by Césaire's friend, the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, will allow readers to reach their own...

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E. Anthony Hurley (essay date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Link and Lance: Aspects of Poetic Function in Césaire's Cadastre—An Analysis of Five Poems," in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, spring 1992, pp. 54-68.

[In the following essay, Hurley discusses five of Césaire's poems taking into account peculiarities of his French Caribbean heritage and its lack of literary tradition.]

It would be difficult to examine the notion of poetic function in relation to Aimé Césaire without taking into consideration the tension and ambivalence of Césaire's situation as a black intellectual and as a poet, functioning within a profoundly alienating white French sociocultural context. On the one hand, as a black...

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Jonathan Ngaté (essay date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Aimé Césaire on Aimé Césaire: A Complementary Reading of 'Crevasses' (from Moi, laminaire …)," in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Spring 1992, pp. 41-53.

[In the following essay, Ngaté examines Césaire's views as a literary critic, as expressed in Césaire's introductions and prefaces to other author's works.]

The Césaire I am interested in here is not only the man who had very calmly but straightforwardly stated in 1956, in his Lettre à Maurice Thorez, that "aucune doctrine ne vaut que repensée par nous, que repensée pour nous, que convertie à nous" [emphasis added]; he is also, for this occasion again,...

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Clarisse Zimra (essay date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Ancestral Ground: Heroic Figuring in Aimé Césaire," in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Spring 1992, pp. 16-29.

[In the following essay, Zimra discusses Césaire's treatment of the recurring textual figure of the Ancestor.]

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that contemporary Caribbean writers are obsessed with the past, an obsession made manifest by a recurring textual figure, that of the Ancestor. Both proponents and opponents of the tenets of Negritude, from Senghor to Soyinka, have tended to see the figure as heroic. In the Caribbean text, the ancestral trope plunges into an imaginary past predicated on collective history in order to gain...

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Laurence M. Porter (essay date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Aimé Césaire's Reworking of Shakespeare: Anticolonialist Discourse in Une Tempête," in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 360-81.

[In the following essay, Porter provides comparative analysis of Césaire's adaptation of The Tempest. According to Porter. Césaire's parody of Shakespeare "constitutes a detailed condemnation of imperialism and racism, rivaled in Césaire's career only by his masterpiece, the Cahier."]

During most of the Vichy occupation of Martinique and the remaining years of World War II (April 1941 to September 1945), Aimé Césaire carried out the program announced two years earlier in his...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Arnold, A. James. "Césaire's Negritude in Perspective." In his Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire, pp. 21-49. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Examines the influence of the Harlem Renaissance, Marxism, and various European, Caribbean, and African writers on the development of Césaire's political and artistic concerns.

Dayan, Joan. "Playing Caliban: Césaire's Tempest." Arizona Quarterly 48, No. 2 (Winter 1992): 125-45.

Discusses issues surrounding colonialism and historical representation in Césaire's A...

(The entire section is 314 words.)