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.
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.
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.
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.