Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1329

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...

(The entire section contains 33229 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 154

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)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1803

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 in a simplification of his themes which obscured the less immediate but more profound significance of the issues with which he is concerned—the moral and spiritual implications of the Negro's collective experience, and their universal relevance.

The ending of the colonial era presently taking place has now permitted a certain broadening of Césaire's area of reference. The publication of his play, La Tragédie du roi Christophe, which has had a remarkable success on the stage in Europe and was a central attraction at the Dakar festival last year, marked this new trend in his work. Césaire has now followed up with another play, Une Saison au Congo, which confirms this evolution and indicates that if his attitude to the Negro condition in general and the African situation in particular remains unchanged, political changes and events in Africa have diverted his attention towards new concerns and dictated a new approach. For the common theme of these two plays is decolonisation, that is, the specific problems that beset newly freed men in their hopes and endeavours to create for themselves a new and acceptable collective life.

La Tragédie du Roi Christophe is set in the Haiti of the early nineteenth century, in the years immediately following Toussaint Louverture's revolution and the war of independence under Dessalines, who founded the state but died before he could consolidate it. His mantle fell upon General Christophe, a former slave and lieutenant successively of the two illustrious men. All the major characters depicted, as well as the principal events recalled in this play are strictly historical. Césaire reconstructs Christophe's subsequent career with all the fidelity that his personal research and the demands of his dramatic medium permit, the more firmly to underline his moral purpose in evoking this crucial phase of Negro history.

Christophe's conscious aspiration, upon assuming the direction of the new republic, is to be an effective leader and not the figurehead of the Haitian middle class, constituted mainly by the mulattoes, whose contribution to the struggle for freedom, though considerable, had been inspired more by their reaction against the aristocratic white settlers than by a feeling of a common destiny with the black slaves. To break the "hold on Haiti of the mulattoes" with whom the republican ideal is associated, Christophe sweeps aside the constitution which they had drawn up to limit his powers, and sets up a monarchy with himself as king whereupon the mulattoes, under their leader Pétion, withdrew to the southern part where they set up a rival republican state. Thus, in less than a decade after independence, there comes civil war.

Christophe's intention in establishing a monarchy, however, is not so much to identify himself with the aspirations of his own people as to justify them, with the outer forms that contemporary "respectable" manners and opinions both offered and approved, in the eyes of the world, especially the former colonial master. In the same misguided spirit, he embarks upon an ambitious programme of national construction, symbolised by the erection of a citadel, to stand upon a promontory outside the capital as a monumental image of the national will. To vindicate his black subjects in their claim to their status as men, the new king chooses for them foreign models of action to channel their creative energies, models which bear no relation to their profound needs nor make a meaningful appeal to their real potential. Christophe's enterprise turns out to be a misdirection of his people's collective effort, not only because his objectives were grossly inappropriate and superficial, but also because these were inspired by an apologetic passion that previous domination and humiliation had bred in the Haitian leaders. His failure is thus significant in the way his slavish reference to foreign norms reveals both the real dilemmas that he faces in choosing a direction of purpose and his psychological handicaps.

The tragedy of Christophe unfolds itself at more than one level, running its course both in the deterioration that an impossible combination of objective factors create in his kingdom, and in the corruption of his noble purpose which is paralleled by his decline from a determined visionary to a sanguinary despot, a spiritual decline which bears close relation to the situation in which he is involved and is accentuated by his egocentric refusal to see Haiti as anything but a projection of himself. This finally dissociates him from his own people and leads to his fall.

The impact of Césaire's play derives mainly from the extraordinary scope of the central character, whose many facets are revealed and whose contradictions are plumbed at different levels. Christophe emerges not as a uniform character, and even less as some absurd villain—comparable for instance to Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones" in the American's treatment of the same subject—but as a truly impressive figure whose hold on our imagination and on our emotions is made relentless by a poetic evocation of tremendous power. In language shorn of his former Surrealistic luxuriance to lay bare its stark, granite edge, Césaire has created an epic hero, at once warmly delineated and integrally realised:

      I would hold in hate my victory if it held for you respite.
      For who then will call to life your black rock,
      Ring clear your human note?
      Africa, my source of strength
      The Kingfisher catching glint after glint of oriflame
      Inventing itself a fresh morning of drunken sunshine.

Indeed, the most striking thing about the whole play is its ambiguity, which reflects a more meditative consciousness on the part of Césaire of the complex nature of any human reality, and of the welter of impulses, rooted in men's minds, that determine human actions. This is what gives to his reconstruction of Christophe's career and of Haiti's early destiny, its quality of truth.

It is precisely this complexity which is missing in his evocation of Patrice Lumumba in Une Saison au Congo. Lumumba appears as a hero contemplated from the outside, but left unexplored, a mythical figure whose vital adhesion to his personal destiny is only summarily registered. He stands indeed for a passion, born out of a critical conjecture of events, but the driving force of this passion and its location in a human heart are not as much probed as rhetorically expressed. In other words, Césaire's Lumumba represents an ideal, but does not fully incarnate its reality. This is a pity, for the real situation in the Congo offered more than enough material for a fuller, more rounded treatment. The very title of the play, echoing as it does Rimbaud's Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell), suggests in fact the nature of the highly dramatic situation that produced Lumumba—a Congo caught in a moment of stress, in which events, in their bewildering, tormenting pressure upon individuals, whipping up their minds to a turbulent pitch, shatter their wills in confused directions.

In Césaire's favour, however, it might be said that these events are too near us in time to permit a more detached and more profound appraisal: and even some of the major protagonists are still too much with us. Besides, Césaire is here making a statement that can only appear as supplementary to the essential message of the previous play. If the drama of the Congo loses some of its acuity in Césaire's representation, it is perhaps because his emphasis has, from one play to the other, shifted from a critical awareness of the problems he is tackling to an expression of the actual human tragedy played out in the Congo: the dreadful waste of lives sacrificed in futile conflicts, the intrigues of outside enemies sparking off or simply profiting from the ambitions of selfish politicians, and, in particular, the terrible helplessness of the masses, raised one moment to heights of hope, plunged the next to depths of suffering, of disillusionment and despair.

Further, the highly problematic situation which erupted into chaos in the Congo did produce characters who hardly seemed real men as much as stock types, and Lumumba himself ended up indeed as an archetype, whose fate stands as a symbol of the Congo's long season of distress and of the dreary prostration of the continent of which she is the heart.

In Une Saison au Congo, Césaire writes less as a committed observer than as a poet agonisingly aware that a drama of elemental intensity is here being enacted, the reversal of an old order prolonging itself in a disruption of the universal order, but out of which new life is created. Of this hope, Lumumba is the prophet:

"As for Africa, I know that, for all her weakness and her divisions, she shall not fail us! For after all, here, of sift, sun and water—of their solemn mating—here man was born."

Thus is the parallel that Césaire overtly draws in La Tragédie du roi Christophe between the Haitian precedent some 150 years ago and the African situation today, driven home, as it were, in Une Saison au Congo. The identification between the Caribbean Negro and the African which is a prominent theme in Césaire's poetry, the bridge of feeling between them in his mind, today acquires a new edge.

These two plays represent then a capital turning point in Césaire's commitment to the Negro cause, but not in any sense a departure from the basic concerns he has demonstrated all along in his writings. Their topical relevance to the present situation in Africa give them an immediate significance that does not need to be emphasised, but they are far from indicating, as has been suggested, any change of attitude on his part. Rather, they cast a new light upon his work which now reveals itself more clearly as being not so much a finished statement upon the destiny of the black man, as an anxious interrogation of his historical experience, and ultimately, that of humanity.

Aimé Césaire does not renounce his négritude, he is quite simply pointing out its implications in the post-colonial era, exhorting us, at the same time, to brace ourselves up to meet their challenge.

Alfred Cismaru (essay date 1974)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3015

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 breathing, a white bathing trunk which no longer fits, and under which, if we could take it off, we would find the true human flesh, a flesh which has the color of black wine.

Sartre's lyricism notwithstanding, it is a fact that the Apostle of Existentialism saw almost a quarter of a century ago the inception of the advent of Black Literature in French letters. In fact, it was in the beginning of the 1920s that two friends who had met as students at the Sorbonne, the Senegalese Léopold Sédar Senghor and the Antillean Aimé Césaire, coined the word négritude. Because of subsequent political developments, however, the Africans and the Antilleans have somewhat different views concerning the meaning and the importance of the idea behind the word. In the 1950s and in the 1960s the French and Belgian colonial empires became dissipated; on the contrary, the French Caribbean islands have remained French Departments overseas. All French-speaking African countries obtained their independence between 1958 and 1960. Consequently, young African writers no longer saw in négritude a fundamental value. Not being any longer oppressed as Blacks, the Africans are more concerned with the economic disadvantages to which they are now submitted vis-à-vis the Western world. For the Antilleans, though, the word négritude still hides a purity and an innocence which they oppose to the dilapidated and decomposing European continent. The American theme of Black Power, for example, appears and reappears in the writings of many natives of Martinique and Guadeloupe; on the contrary, there is no mention of it in recent African literature. In fact, at the Festival of Black Art held at Dakar in 1966, and during the Pan African Cultural Festival held at Algiers in 1969, numerous were the instances of lack of solidarity between the black Africans and the black Antilleans. Literary magazines and newspapers all over the world gave, at the time, so much coverage to the different points of view advanced, and to the conflicting lists of priorities which emerged, that both groups felt the stigma of embarrassment for several months after each of the respective meetings. The rift might seem astonishing to those who recall that Blacks all over the world share in a common culture, which their dispersion throughout the planet did not manage to annihilate.

Nevertheless, soon after independence the African societies began to place a great deal more emphasis on immediate material problems than on loftier literary productions containing racial overtones. For the Antilleans, however, literature continued to provide a needed outlet for rebellion.

In France there is a small bibliography at the disposal of students of Black Literature; there is hardly anything in the United States, and there is nothing on Antillean poets who, perhaps better than their African brothers, and certainly earlier, had displayed a beautiful, strange and violent national lyricism heretofore encountered only in the best of Western writers. The purpose of the present essay will be, then, to fill this lacuna in Black Literary Studies by analyzing some of the work of Aimé Césaire, generally considered in Europe to be the best exponent of Black Caribbean culture in the twentieth century.

It will be recalled that Césaire was born in Martinique in 1913. As a young adult he went to France and was a student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Paris. Upon his return to Martinique he taught high school; later he was elected as the Island's representative at the National Assembly in Paris. His early adherence to the Communist Party was surely prompted more by the accidental fact that he was born in a French colony, than caused by deeply rooted political convictions. Temporarily he saw in Marxism a friendly point of view, perhaps even a solution. Later, he realized that his quarrel was not so much with a still colonizing Europe but with Whites as a whole. In 1956 he wrote to Maurice Thorez: "What I want is that Marxism and Communism be placed in the service of black people; I do not want the Black to be in the service of the Party." Specifically, he reproached the French Communist Party with the fact that it believed itself capable of solving the problems of colonized peoples. On the contrary, Césaire's idea of a black revolt and of black power implies an exclusively self-made solution. The poet's penchant for such an extreme position can be seen in Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, a poem dating back to 1935, (published however in 1947), when the author returned to Martinique after years of study in France. Notice the initial praise of a simple but innocent world, his, opposed to one encumbered by and weighed under its technical inventions:

    o friendly light
    o fresh source of life
    those who invented neither gunpowder, nor the compass
    those who never knew how to conquer steam nor electricity
    those who explored neither the seas nor the heavens
    but those without whom the earth would not be the earth …
    my blackness is not a stone …
    my blackness is not a spot of dead water on the dead cornea of the earth
    my blackness is neither a tower nor a cathedral
    it plunges however into the red flesh of the soil
    it plunges into the flaming flesh of the sky
    it is a perfect circle enclosing the world in a shut concordance

followed by a scornful attack on a morally and physically decaying Europe with which the Blacks can no longer deal, but to which they can still administer a final slap, that of commiseration:

    listen to the white world
    horribly tired of its immense effort
    listen to its predatory victories
    to its grandiose alibis
    have pity on our omniscient and naïve conquerors
                  —Cahier d'un retour au pays natal

As soon as one begins to read Césaire, it becomes obvious that for him, unlike prose, poetry begins with extreme positions and espouses easily the most unexpected exaggerations. Giving himself entirely to the ancestral appeal of mother Africa, the poet often views négritude as virtue and whiteness as evil. His lyrical confrontation between white technology and black innocence has a quality of spontaneity about it, at once conquering and destructive. Moreover, his verbal incandescence appears to evoke a surrealistic language saluted by André Breton himself, who saw in Cahier d'un retour au pays natal "the greatest lyrical monument of our time … transcending with every line the fear that the Black have for the Black who are imprisoned in a white society, identifying with this fear and becoming one with it, causing all poets to become one with it, all artists and all thinkers, by furnishing to them the bait of his verbal genius, and by making them all aware that the condition at the basis of this fear is as intolerable as it is changeable."

"Europe is indefensible," Césaire boasted once, at a time when he was closer to the tenets of the Communist Party. His quarrel with the old Continent stemmed, then, from the fact that he equated it with Christianity, which he considered at the source of the White's mania for colonization. "What is most responsible for the situation is Christian pedantry," he stated in his now famous Discours sur le colonialisme: for "it advanced the dishonest equations: Christianity = civilization; paganism = savagery." While admitting that exchanges between continents and rapports between different civilizations constitute the very oxygen of progress, Césaire denies that colonization did any good for the Black. Instead of human contact, what had happened, Césaire maintains, were simple liaisons of domination and of submission. To the White's statistics on roads, canals and railroads, he responds with lyrical pleas concerning the thousands of men sacrificed to the Congo-Océan and to the harbor of Abidjan dug by hand by generations of Blacks. But it is especially when he uses the device of causticity that his rebellion appears particularly effective. Such sentences as: "Neither Deterding, nor Royal Dutch, nor Standard Oil will ever console me for the loss of the Aztecs nor of the Incas," are effective precisely because they tend to distract the listener and the reader from content: how can it be proven that Royal Dutch or Standard Oil had anything to do with the disappearance of ancient civilizations?

But the Discours sur le colonialisme is not always dubious in content, nor sarcastic in style. When violent rebellion gives way to a more sedate approach, Césaire does manage to make some very good points. For example, in answer to some detractors, such as Roger Caillois, Emile Faguet and Jules Romains, he counters with a number of indisputable facts. To the often-made charge that "The black race has not yet yielded nor will ever give us an Einstein, nor a Stravinsky, nor a Gershwin," he lists a number of achievements attributable more or less directly to men of his heritage: "For example, the invention of arithmetic and of geometry by the Egyptians. For example, the discovery of astronomy by the Assyrians. For example, the appearance of Rationalism in the bosom of Islam at the time when western thought was furiously pre-logical."

Nevertheless, if in the past the Blacks constituted a proud and productive race, in more recent times it bent and submitted cowardly to foreign interventions and assimilation efforts. This is a theme which constantly lards the Discours sur le colonialisme and which reappears in a number of recent plays by Aimé Césaire. It should be noted immediately, however, that the poet's switch to the theatre did not really constitute an unusual metamorphosis. In writing for the stage he conserved intact the vigor of his poetry, his predilection for lyrical outbursts, and the use of Claudelian verset. Yet, in an unusual combination at which probably the Catholic poet would shiver, Claudel joins Brecht in Césaire's theatre. Let us mention for example La Tragédie du roi Christophe (1964), which takes place in Haiti at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and which seizes poignantly the aspirations of a Negro leader at first hailed by his people, then abandoned by them when it becomes obvious that freedom can only be secured at the cost of blood and tears. An even more striking example of the unusual fusion between Claudel's vocabulary and Brecht's propagandistic exhortations occurs in Une Saison au Congo, a play which follows closely the events which tore apart the Congo in 1960, and which lead to the assassination of its prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. The dominating figure of the African leader captures the imagination of spectators and readers to whom he is depicted as a misunderstood and solitary savior. Listen for example to Lumumba's lyrical hymn which evokes the birth of the Congo out of the ashes of an enslaved past:

Congolese, today is a great day because for the first time in a long time we see daylight! It is the day when the world receives, among other nations, the Congo, our mother, and especially the Congo, our child. The child of our waiting, of our suffering, of our struggle. Comrades and fellow soldiers, may each of our wounds become a breast, may each of our thoughts, each of our hopes turn into a whip … I should like to be a toucan, the beautiful bird, in order to fly across the skies, and to announce, to races and languages, that our Congo has been born.

                          —Une Saison au Congo

And there are, of course, numerous other examples one could select in this and other plays by Césaire in which he combines successfully a majestic and violent lyricism which reassembles Claudelian tones, with those of the tam-tam African rhythms. Part of the attraction of this fusion, experienced even by those of different political persuasions, is in the fact that it recalls chant, mime, and dance, that is to say the traditional African culture which is essentially one based on oral and gesture communication. Moreover, this style is capable of expressing in a foreign language the divinations and the prophecies of the African temperament. The poet, synthesizing and synchronizing, manages to collect and to concretize a catching unity of great pulsations in which the I and the world are soldered into a mystical and quasi-erotic symbolism. In order to reach such an effect, Césaire's genius finds a heretofore unexplored poetical expression, namely that of Claudel and Brecht mingled into a single voice: the most patented, partisan politics explicated in terms of motherhood ("the Congo, our mother … our child"); physical and spiritual injuries ("our wounds") evoking a most intimate part of the body ("breast") which is reminiscent of motherhood and nourishment; cogitation ("our thoughts") and expectations ("our hopes") metamorphosed into an offensive weapon ("a whip").

A Communist who could not stand the orthodoxy of the Communist Party, a Marxist who shook himself lose from Hegelian mechanisms, Aimé Césaire has always managed to hold on to his lyrical exuberance. Moreover, his separation from Europe makes it possible for him to break with clarity and description, and to become intimate with the fundamental essence of things. Under his powerful, poetic eye, perception knows no limits and pierces appearances without pity. Words emerge and explode like firecrackers, catching the eye and the imagination of the reader. He makes use of the entire dictionary, of artificial and vulgar words, of elegant and forgotten ones, of technical and invented vocabulary, marrying it to Antillean and African syllables, and allowing it to play freely in a sort of flaming folly that is both a challenge and a tenacious attempt at mystification. Witness the following little poem, picked at random from among dozens which are available in his various collections of poetry;

     Another Horizon
     night devil-like stigma
     night telegraphic bushel planted in the ocean
     for the minute love of cetaceans
     night shut
     splendid atelier of maceration
     where with all of the strength of all its savage colors flexes the violet muscle of the aconitum napallus of another sun
                                —Soleil cou coupé

Its mysterious, cryptic tone notwithstanding, it is clear that the poet has communicated with Night, has identified with it, thus has managed to impart to us a most intimate and unusual experience clad in magic, powerful, and irrepressible vocabulary. Aimé Césaire's ability to convey is, therefore, not limited to topical themes, but it extends to very private and personal feelings enhanced by his genius and projected across the darkness of the world with the ease of a graceful manipulator of chiaro-oscuros. An exact accountant of his own suffering, Césaire is mysteriously aware of our own balance sheets on pain. He once stated in a collection already quoted:

     to go.
     just as there are hyena-men and cancer-men, I shall
       be a Jew-man
     a Black of austral Africa
     a man-Hindu-from-Calcutta
     a man-from-Harlem-who-does-not-vote
     the hungry man, the insulted man, the tortured man
       who can be seized at any moment and crushed
       by blows and killed—killed entirely—without
       anyone having to give an account to anybody
       or to apologize to anybody
     a Jew-man
     a pogrom-man
     a young dog
     a beggar …
     I shall find the secret of great communications and
       of great combustions. I shall tell the storm.
       I shall tell the river. I shall tell the tornado.
     I shall tell the leaf. I shall tell the tree.
     I shall be drenched by all the rains, humectant with all the dews.
                    —Cahier d'un retour au pays natal

Ambitious promises, of course, but Aimé Césaire has been able to deliver. He is a poet's poet when he stays clear of political questions, a tenacious and violent propagandist when the theme requires it. His place in contemporary French letters, already recognized by Sartre and other critics, is assured in spite of the fact that not many agree with his views on Whites in general, nor with his opinions on Europe, in particular. Some have seen a certain amount of naïveté in Césaire's choice of fighting intolerance with intolerance and hate with scorn. For example, speaking of him and of others who follow in his footsteps, Pierre de Boisdeffre remarked: "In acceding to the conquest of their national I, they continue to dream of a universal humanism of which Europe—whose grandeur they do not recognize because they have only seen its oppressive side—gave them the idea in the first place." The Everyman that he is, Césaire the Black, the Jew, the Colonized and the Freed, still uses, of course, a European language as his means of expression. That he is, at this point in history, incapable of admitting or seeing that his taste for freedom comes from the very people who have colonized and subjugated him, is of less importance than the fact that he is eminently able to become incarnated into a number of paradigms which shake the modern world and pain its conscience. Besides, unlike some Black Power advocates, Aimé Césaire sees, of course, the inadequacy of a return to what might be called the museum of African culture: the myriad languages of Africa would limit considerably the reading public of any poet, of any writer indeed. Césaire understood that African and Antillean vernaculars conserve simply an historic importance, and the only way not to have to pit one linguistic group against the other is to rely on French, which has been for so long the official administrative and scholarly language of millions of Blacks. That he does is of benefit to aficionados of literature everywhere.

Marjorie Perloff (review date January-February 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3016

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 bilingual edition puts the entire lyric corpus before us for the first time.

The black poet Aimé Césaire was born in 1913 in Martinique. Creole is the first language of all black Martinicans, but Césaire's lower middle-class parents made strenuous efforts to secure their son the best French education possible: at eighteen, he won a scholarship to the famous Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris which, in turn, paved the way for his entrance to the Ecole Normale. In the Paris of the thirties, two influences converged to shape Césaire's future poetry: the Surrealism of André Breton and his circle, and the new interest in African ethnography, especially the work of Leo Frobenius. As Michel Leiris put it in his 1965 essay "Qui est Aimé Césaire?" (an English translation by A. James Arnold appeared in Sulfur 5 [1982]):

Césaire found in surrealism a way of looking at the world that had to appeal to him. Wasn't surrealism in open revolt against the entire framework of western rationalism, which the European intellectuals assembled around Breton rejected as an intolerable tyranny, less tolerable still for a Black Antillean since that framework is, historically, the one the Whites superimposed, so to speak, on the slaves they imported from Africa and on their descendants?

Together with the African poet and statesman-to-be Léopold Senghor, Césaire developed the concept of négritude, which signifies not, as is often thought, "Blackness first," the belief in African superiority, but rather, as Leiris explains, the right to be what one is, the right to "remain different":

For Césaire to be conscious of his negritude and to be conscious of it as Martinican requires that he pursue from the start two objectives: politically, to free his country of forms of economic exploitation that condemn the masses to pauperism; culturally, to bring the specifically Antillean element into proper relief, which implies that without underestimating the role of western civilization one must turn toward the African heritage that is so often forgotten or denied by colored Antilleans who want only to be first-class Frenchmen.

These are precisely the themes that find their way into Césaire's first great poem, the long Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land), published in its first version in 1939, when Césaire returned to Martinique. In the years that followed, Césaire became actively engaged in politics: first as editor of the radical journal Tropiques, then as a member of the fledgling Martinican Communist party which, at the end of World War II, elected him mayor of Fort-de-France and the same year as deputy to the Première Assemblée Nationale Constituante in Paris, where he participated in the formation of the new constitution of the Fourth Republic. In the decade that followed, Césaire wrote most of his lyric poetry; he also began to turn away from Communism and officially broke with the party in 1956 when the Soviets invaded Hungary. The precise nature of his Marxist philosophy is, as Smith and Eshleman point out, a complicated question: suffice it to say here that in 1958 he founded the independent socialist Martinican Progressive party (PPM) which has been returned to the French legislature in every subsequent election. A strong supporter of the Mitterand government, Césaire continues to write—in the last two decades chiefly drama and essays—and to engage in the cause of Martinican independence.

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. Sartre sums it up nicely in a comment cited on the book jacket of the Eshleman-Smith translation:

In Aimé Césaire the great surrealist tradition draws to a close, achieves its definitive meaning and is destroyed: surrealism, a European movement in poetry is snatched from the Europeans by a black man who turns it against them and assigns a rigorously defined function to it … a Césaire poem explodes and whirls about itself like a rocket, suns burst forth whirling and exploding like new suns—it perpetually surpasses itself.

The rocket analogy is a good one: 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:

Va-t'en, lui disais-je, gueule de flic, gueule de vache, va-t'en, je déteste les larbins de l'ordre et les hannetons de l'espérance. Va-t'en, mauvais gri-gri, punaise de moinillon. Puis je me tournais vers des paradis pour lui et les siens perdus, plus calme que la face d'une femme qui ment, et là, bercé par les effluves d'une pensée jamais lasse je nourrissais le vent, je délaçais les monstres et j'entendais monter de l'autre cõté du désastre, un fleuve de tourterelles et de trèfles de la savane que je porte toujours dans mes profondeurs à hauteur inverse du vingtième étage des maisons les plus insolentes et par précaution contre la force putréfiante des ambiantes crépusculaires, arpentée nuit et jour d'un sacré soleil vénérien.

Beat it, I said to him, you cop, you lousy pig, beat it, I detest the flunkies of order and the cockchafers of hope. Beat it evil grigri, you bedbug of a petty monk. Then I turned toward paradises lost for him and his kin, calmer than the face of a woman telling lies, and there, rocked by the flux of a never exhausted thought I nourished the wind, I unlaced the monsters and heard rise, from the other side of disaster, a river of turtledoves and savanna clover which I carry forever in my depths height-deep as the twentieth floor of the most arrogant houses and as a guard against the putrefying force of crepuscular surroundings, surveyed night and day by a cursed veneral sun.

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. On "the other side of disaster," we read, there is "a river of turtledoves and savanna clover" which the poet carries so deep within himself that it surpasses the height of the most insolent twenty-floor house. But what is the disaster that has occurred? It will take the whole length of the poem to find out. And in the course of the poem, the town, "plate-étalée" ("sprawled-flat") like Van Gogh's little town in The Starry Night, must explode:

Elle rampe sur les mains sans jamais aucune envie de vriller le ciel d'une stature de protestation. Les dos des maisons ont peur du ciel truffé de feu, leurs pieds des noyades du sol, elles ont opté de se poser superficielles entre les surprises et les perfidies. Et pourtant elle avance la ville. Même qu'elle paît tous les jours outre sa marée de corridors carrelés, de persiennes pudibondes, de cours gluantes, de peintures qui dégoulinent. Et de petits scandales étouffés, de petites hontes tues, de petites haines immenses pétrissent en bosses et creux les rues étroites où le ruisseau grimace longitudinalement pari l'étron

It crawls on its hands without the slightest desire to drill the sky with a stature of protest. The backs of the houses are afraid of the sky truffled with fire, their feet of the drownings of the soil, they chose to perch shallowly between surprises and treacheries. And yet it advances, the town does. It even grazes every day further out into its tide of tiled corridors, prudish shutters, gluey courtyards, dripping paintwork. And petty hushed-up scandals, petty unvoiced guilts, petty immense hatreds knead the narrow streets into bumps and potholes where the waste-water grins longitudinally through turds

What strikes me as especially remarkable here and in Césaire's surrealist lyrics in Les Armes Miraculeuses (The Miraculous Weapons) of 1946 is the total absence of sentimentality or self-pity. He can see himself as:

    —moi sur une route, enfant, mâchant une racine de canne à sucre
    —trainé homme sur une route sanglante une corde au cou
    —debout au milieu d'un cirque immense sur mon front noir une couronne de daturas voum rooh
    —me on a road, a child chewing sugar cane root
    —a dragged man on a bloodspattered road a rope around his neck
    —standing in the center of a huge circus, on my black forehead a crown of daturas voum rooh

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:

Et voici ceux qui ne se consolent point de n'être pas faits à la ressemblance de Dieu mais du diable, ceux qui considèrent que l'on est nègre comme commis de seconde classe: en attendant mieux et avec possibilité de monter plus haul; ceux qui battent la chamade devant soi-même … ceux qui disent à l'Europe: "Voyez, je sais comme vous faire des courbettes, comme vous présenter mes hommages, en somme, je ne suis pas différent de vous; ne faites pas attention à ma peau noire: c'est le soleil qui m'a brûlé."

And there are those who will never get over not being made in the likeness of God but of the devil, those who believe that being a nigger is like being a second-class clerk; waiting for a better deal and upward mobility; those who beat the drum of compromise in front of themselves, those who live in their own dungeon pit … those who say to Europe: "You see, I can bow and scrape, like you I pay my respects, in short, I am no different from you: pay no attention to my black skin: the sun did it."

Césaire, as the classical scholar Gregson Davis, himself a black Caribbean, argued in an essay of 1977, is notoriously difficult to translate. The use of arcane diction, technical vocabulary, Creole and African terms, homonyms, and neologisms, presents the translator with formidable problems, but, what is worse, Césaire's syntax seems to be, in Davis' words, "disordered and lubricous; and the lubricity, real or apparent, is partly a function of the total absence of punctuation." (This is less the case in Notebook than in the later work). It is often difficult to know whether a given adjectival modifier belongs to one noun or another; again, so Davis argues, Césaire's "specialized lyric vocabulary," especially his sequences of metaphors, cannot be tampered with without destroying the whole poetic structure. "Interpretation," he insists, "should take into account the total symbolic system of the lyric oeuvre."

Eshleman and Smith, who refer to Davis' cautionary statements in their own "Translators' Notes," have clearly taken his lessons to heart. They affirm their desire to preserve Césaire's odd syntax as fully as possible and to reproduce his verbal patterns. Indeed, so careful are they to be literal, that they embed certain of the West Indian or technical terms in the English translation, for example:

      Au bout du petit matin, le morne oublié, oublieux de sauter.
      At the end of the wee hours, the morne forgotten, forgetful of leaping.

where morne, so the Notes tell us, "is a term used throughout the French West Indies to designate certain altitudes of volcanic origin" and hence "justly applied to the majority of Martinican hills." Or again, we read:

      terre grande délire de la mentule de Dieu
      earth great delirium of God's mentula

mentule being "probably a gallicization of the Latin 'mentula' (penis) based on an Indo-European stem designating a stick agitated to produce fire."

I find this practice of reproducing the foreign word irritating, for it destroys the continuity as well as the fiction of the text, reminding us that the English version is only, so to speak, a reproduction of the original. Even more irritating is the often dogged attempt to reproduce the exact syntax of the original as when, in the extract about the exploding town cited above. "Et pourtant elle avance la ville" is translated as "And yet it advances, the town does." In English, this sounds silly: "And yet the town advances" or "And yet the town moves forward" would have been quite sufficient.

Even at its best, this can hardly be called an elegant translation. "Pas un bout de ce monde qui ne porte mon empreinte digitale," which an earlier translator, Emile Snyder, rendered as "not a bit of this earth not smudged by my fingerprint," becomes "not an inch of this world devoid of my fingerprint," thus erasing the force of the "empreinte digitale" which Césaire wishes to convey. Again, it is hard to understand why "Ce qui est à moi / c'est un homme seul emprisonné de / blanc" is translated as "What is mine / a lonely man imprisoned in / whiteness," for an "homme seul" need not be lonely and Césaire's understatement is surely intentional.

"What is desperately needed in an enterprise so important and far-reaching as a translation of Césaire's lyric verse," says Gregson Davis, "is an interpreter who has a profound knowledge of Caribbean history and culture, on the one hand, and European literary history, ancient and modern, on the other." Davis is himself such an interpreter and I understand he will soon publish his own translation of Césaire. In the meantime, we have Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith's brave attempt to come to terms with this difficult and brilliant poet. Smith's scholarship is impressive: the introduction, history of editions, translator's notes, and bibliography are very helpful. Eshleman, who won the National Book Award for his translation with José Rubia Barcia of César Vallejo (1978), seems less at ease with the surrealist complexities of Césaire than with the more direct emotive thrust of the Peruvian poet. But perhaps at this early stage of Césaire translation, it is ungrateful to ask for more than the California translators have given us. It is a genuine gift.

James A. Arnold (review date July 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1138

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 conclusions. At all events, an important new territory has been added to the poetic geography of our time by the availability in one volume of all but the most recent collection (Moi, laminaire, 1983) of the greatest living poet in the French language.

Césaire is a black Martinican who has been a Deputy in the French Chamber of Deputies since 1945. The fact that he is a Martinican, therefore a (neo-) colonial subject of France, has encouraged readers to assume that he is somehow outside the mainstream. The fact that he was the first major poet in the world to loudly proclaim that "it-is-beautiful-good-and-legitimate-to-be-a-nigger" (1939) has subjected Césaire to the vicissitudes of fashion regarding black writers. Insofar as he is recognized today, it is as a precursor of the Black Arts Movement in this country. When the revolutionary fervor and the rhetorical posturing of the sixties subsided, so did interest in Césaire. Our mistake was to tie him to a group of writers whose work was less permanent than Césaire's. Reading him as a Frantz Fanon in verse trivialized Césaire's poetry and reduced him to an epiphenomenon.

Gárcia Márquez, Vargas Llosa, in fiction, Neruda and Vallejo among Latin American poets, all write from within, even as they write against, recognizable national cultures. But the black writer from Martinique or Guadeloupe, having no national identity in the Caribbean, is the stepchild of the twentieth century. Saint-John Perse, born in Guadeloupe into the white planter class, rose to the top echelons of the French foreign service under his real name, Aléxis Saint-Léger Léger. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960. In the same year Aimé Césaire published Ferraments, probably his most accomplished collection of poems. His name has never appeared among the candidates for the Nobel.

The principal issue in reading, understanding and translating Césaire is his relationship to modernism and its antecedents. An only slightly less important issue is the potential of modernist poetics for awakening the political as well as the esthetic consciousness of its readers. Previous translators of Césaire stressed the political to the detriment of the esthetic. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith have struck a fine balance. They have given us strong poetry that features, sometimes alternately, sometimes in unexpected combinations, the asperity, the wit, the solemnity, and the sensual molding of sound that characterize the original. The fact that Annette Smith was born in colonial Algeria and has a feel for the French colonial milieu has contributed to keeping these translations very close to the tone and the affective sense of Césaire's writing.

The qualities of the Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (1939; standard edition, 1956) come through here for the first time in English. The reader can grasp the essence of this long poem (53 pages with the original French on the facing page) which became a source of moral and spiritual sustenance to readers involved in the decolonization of their countries in the late forties and fifties. Césaire's creation of an original form in this poem, where prophetic discourse of a distantly biblical flavor gives way to lyrical bursts and a prose that sometimes approaches narrative, has saved the Notebook from becoming a dated piece of anticolonialist poetry like so many others.

The Miraculous Weapons (1946) extends surrealism beyond the range it had acquired in Breton's practice, while retaining a muscular tension and a drive that seldom appear in Eluard's. The Thoroughbreds, one of the longer poems in the collection, evidences these characteristics in two successive passages: "But how how not bless / unlike anything dreamt by my logics / hard against the grain cracking their licy piles / and their saburra and more pathetic / than the fruit-bearing flower / the lucid chap of unreasons?" Then, in counterpoint: "And I hear the water mounting / the new the untouched the timeless water / toward the renewed air." The poem suggests the death and rebirth of a culture hero, the prelude to a new mythology freed from the dominating, raping will to power of the Western ethos. It culminates in a prophetic vision: "through knowing grasses time glides / the branches were pecking at a peace of green flames / and the earth breathed under the gauze of mists / and the earth stretched. There was a cracking / in its knotted shoulders. There was in its veins / a crackling of fire…." In this mode Césaire frequently adopts an apocalyptic stance, positing ultimate renewal only after some telluric upheaval.

Lost Body, the title poem of a 1950 collection originally illustrated by Picasso, makes more explicit the impulse of the rootless to put down roots. Since the recent past of Afro-Americans (and, more generally, of the dispossessed) has been largely obliterated, those roots will probe an ancient substratum: "Things stand back make room among you / room for my repose carrying in waves / my frightening crest of anchor-like roots / looking for a place to take hold / Things I probe I probe / me the street-porter I am root-porter / and I bear down and I force and I arcane / I omphale / Ah who leads me back toward the harpoon / I am very weak / I hiss yes I hiss very ancient things…."

In Poetry and Knowledge (1944) Césaire had expanded this notion in essay form. On the one hand, he claimed: "The poet's word is the primal word: rupestral design in the stuff of sound." No wonder then that the American poet to undertake the translation of Césaire's oeuvre should be Clayton Eshleman, whose recent collections Hades in Manganese (1981) and Fracture (1983) both concern themselves with the earliest human art and the dilemma of contemporary humanity. And it is characteristic of Eshleman's work in this translation that he makes his own another proposition in Césaire's Poetry and Knowledge: "the music of poetry … comes from a greater distance than sound. To seek to musicalize poetry is the crime against poetic music, which can only be the striking of the mental wave against the rock of the world." In Hades in Manganese Eshleman wrote that "words are energy deposits" (The Shaft) and Winding Windows suggests, in a style consonant with Césaire's poetic intention: "If there must be clarity, / let it be opaque, let the word be / as translucent as night stirred…."

E. Anthony Hurley (essay date Spring 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5606

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 man, and particularly as a black Martinican-Frenchman, Césaire is constantly confronted by identity issues, grounded in the unhealed and perhaps unhealable wound of slavery, of colonization, and of relatively forced assimilation into an alien culture, as well as in potential isolation and separation within the black/African diaspora. As a poet and black intellectual, Césaire serves as the voice of a leader for an audience and a people (fellow Blacks) on whom he depends and to whom he is inextricably linked for the integration of his identity. Césaire's situation therefore suggests the tension of a poetry that would tend to function simultaneously inwardly and outwardly, personally and politically, as both link and lance: as a link for exploring identity issues, a means of searching and solidifying, of facilitating and articulating identity; as a lance, a weapon of personal and political liberation, but also an instrument to open the festering wound of alienation and self-hatred in order to create hope and healing.

At the same time, Césaire is a citizen of France, albeit black and Martinican, writing poetry in the French language within an established French literary tradition with its own socio-symbolic order. While Césaire's awareness as an educated black man might tend to incline him towards consciously or unconsciously rejecting or subverting the French social order, he does not become "un-French," and both his use of the French language and his renown as a French (Caribbean) writer would tend to validate, and contribute to the survival of, the French social order to which he belongs.

A discussion of poetic function in relation to Césaire should therefore take into account the peculiarities of his French Caribbean situation and the ambivalence of his relationship to a metropolitan French literary tradition. The term poetic function itself, however, though part of the rhetoric of the Western sociocultural tradition, tends to be somewhat elusive. Its meaning, for the purposes of this study, may be said to lie within the parameters of two modern critical and linguistic approaches, advanced by [Julia] Kristeva and [Roman] Jakobson. Kristeva's approach captures the irony of Césaire's position vis-a-vis metropolitan French society. She posits a revolutionary and subversive function for poetry or poetic language within the context of a socio-symbolic order; poetry thus serves paradoxically both to transform the social order and to ensure its survival:

Dans cet ordre socio-symbolique ainsi saturé sinon déjà clos, la poésie—disons plus exactement le langage poétique—rappelle ce qui fut depuis toujours sa fonction: introduire, à travers le symbolique, ce qui le travaille, le traverse et le menace. Ce que la théorie de l'inconscient cherche, le langage poétique le pratique à l'interieur et à l'encontre de l'ordre social: moyen ultime de sa mutation ou de sa subversion, condition de sa survie et de sa révolution….

Kristeva's approach in relating poetry to the context of a social order shares linkages with Jakobson's analysis of linguistic communication. Jakobson identifies six constituent factors in linguistic processes: "destinateur," "destinataire," "message," "contexte," "code," and "contact." He relates poetic function to emphasis placed on the "message" itself: "l'accent mis sur le message pour son propre compte est ce qui caractérise la fonction poétique du langage…." Césaire's poetry indeed necessarily emphasizes the "message," since it serves as a concrete manifestation of a communication link between poet and self and poet and people. In this study, therefore, poetic function will refer to the role of the poet and of the poem in relation to the sociopolitical context within which the poet writes.

The interpretation of Césaire's poetry as revolutionary, in relation to the nature and direction of the poet's communication, was suggested, long before the articulations of Jakobson and Kristeva, by Aristide Maugée, Césaire's close friend, fellow Martinican and co-contributor to the early 1940s Martinican journal, Tropiques. In a 1942 article, Maugée suggests aspects of the functions of Césaire's poetry that will become almost clichés in the years that follow: the poem as liberation, as verbal magic, as a means of exploring and discovering inner truths. He asserted:

[Césaire] faconne da mots nouveaux, crée da images nouvelles pour exprimer la nuance exacte de sa perception, trouve des sonorités neuves pour libérer son chant interieur.

Magie du son. Sortilège du Verbe.

[…] par la désintégration du réel, le poéte recherche un monde nouveau: un monde de beauté et de vérité.

Où le trouvera-t-il sinon dans la profondeur de sa conscience?

Moreover, Césaire himself, in his 1943 article in Tropiques, "Maintenir la poesie," had indicated that poetry as he conceived and practiced it had a deliberately subversive function, in relation to the existing social order:

Se défendre du social par la création d'une zone d'incandescence, en deça de laquelle, à l'intérieur de laquelle fleurit dans une sécurité terrible la fleur inouïe du "Je"; […] conquérir par la révoke la part franche où se susciter soi-même, intégral, telles sont quelques-unes des exigences qui […] tendent à s'imposer à tout poète […].

Ici poésie égale insurrection […]

Césaire's poetics have perhaps been most comprehensively articulated in "Poésie et connaissance," in which he established an opposition between poetic and scientific processes of knowledge, affirming the superiority of the poetic process as a means of true cosmic knowledge. Césaire thus aligned himself with the revolutionary adventures of poets like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Lautréamont, Apollinaire and Breton. "Poésie et connaissance" ended with a summary of Césaire's poetics, expressed in seven propositions, the first of which asserts that "la poésie est cette démarche qui par le mot, l'image, le mythe, l'amour et l'humour m'installe au cccur vivant de moi-même et du monde".

Césaire's explicit alignment with these luminaries of modern French poetry has opened the door for Euro-centered critical approaches to his own poetry. Such approaches, however well meaning, however brilliantly executed, feed into the same dilemma from which Césaire as a French Caribbean writer has tried so courageously to escape: absorption into a socio-politico-cultural entity that has, through slavery, colonization, and assimilation, consistently denied a voice to him and his people. French Caribbean poets like Césaire are necessarily characterized by the problem of cultural identity, including the struggle of separation from France, and their textual voice is grounded in the geographical and sociocultural reality of the French Caribbean. Because of the peculiar situation of such poets, in terms of the dynamics of geography, language, history, and culture, it is inevitable that the signs of this situation will be literally inscribed in the texts produced. If these signs are unrecognized or ignored, much of the "significance" of the literary work will be missed.

Moreover, any approach to Césaire's poetry and indeed to the literature of the Caribbean that ignores the existence of an authentic and valid voice which compensates for an orality lost or repressed over the last few centuries will inevitably fall short of determining the profound significance of the literature.

No analysis of French Caribbean literature is ultimately meaningful if it does not directly engage the problematic of cultural identity with which every Caribbean writer is confronted. Approaches to Caribbean texts through the mediation of European theories tend to devalue and deny the pivotal thrust of French Caribbean literary production, which is ultimately to proclaim and assert its validity as an authentic cultural manifestation.

A problem arises, however, for, while it may be inappropriate to rely on Euro-centered critical approaches to explicate French Caribbean poetry, there is a lack of alternative approaches sensitive to this problematic. Since critical practice necessarily has political implications, there is a need for critical activity by scholars sensitive enough to the challenge posed by the special situation of French Caribbean letters not to adopt the easier task of imposing a traditional, metropolitan critical framework on French Caribbean texts, but to seek to develop approaches which will support the evolution of a French Caribbean literary canon on its own terms.

The investigation which follows centers on the notion of poetic function in Césaire's Cadastre, with specific reference to five poems. Cadastre, published in 1961 by Seuil, is the re-edition of poems from two previously published collections, Soleil cou-coupe of 1948 and Corps perdu of 1950, with some of the original poems omitted and others revised. Césaire's poetic practice in this collection has been analyzed by A. James Arnold, who has sought to reconcile contrasting modernist and negritude approaches to Césaire. Arnold's assertion of a paradox in the negritude movement in that it "simultaneously cultivated a rhetoric of protest and an intensely subjective poetics", which colors his readings of Césaire's poems, suggests a practical and unreconciled separation between "lyrical" and "polemical" functions in Césaire's poetry not borne out by the texts themselves. Ronnie Scharfman, who has also produced penetrating analyses of many of Césaire's poems, seeks to address and supplement "the absence of a problematic that could simultaneously articulate the difficulties of Césaire's poetic discourse and its political engagement." Scharfman consequently reads each text "as an enactment of some conflict by or for the subject". While her analyses are consistently insightful, she has, by defining Césaire's genius as the "textualization of marginality", and by imposing European critical approaches on Césaire's poetic practice, perhaps underestimated the importance of the relationship existing between Césaire and his chosen "others."

As the title of this collection (Cadastre) suggests, the poet is concerned with making a survey—taking an inventory of his situation as a black man and as a poet. The poems suggest the tension implicit in the ambivalence of the relationship between the poet and the social order within which he functions, and serve to concretize the message of liberation. As mentioned earlier, Césaire's poetry operates in two directions simultaneously, inwardly and personally, and outwardly and politically: inwardly, the poetry serves as a vehicle for the poet to explore and resolve issues of personal identity and liberation, and as a means of personal salvation; outwardly, the poetry operates as a means of communicating with his people and with the supporters of the alienating social order, and as a means of affirmation, education, disalienation, and even of subversion.

Linking these two functions which represent the personal and political thrusts of Césaire's poetry is a connecting function which may be identified as creative, concerned with the poet's exploitation of the magical and prophetic potential of poetry. By a close textual reading that resists the temptation to assimilate the poetry into a predetermined European theoretical model, and that refrains from considering the poetry as other than what it is (French Caribbean poetry), I propose to illustrate the specific ways in which these functions operate. I shall attempt to answer the following questions: What voices speak within the poem? What are the roles and characteristics of the poetic voice? Whom does the poet address within the poem? How does the poem link poetic voice, addressee and context?

1. "Magique"

The title of this opening poem of the collection anticipates the magical metamorphosis which occurs at the end of the poem: the repositioning of "un dieu noir" (line 18). This metamorphosis takes place against a background of natural phenomena, an overcast sky in which only a thin slice of blue is visible ("une lèche de ciel"), and high winds ("vous bêtes qui sifflez"), which are characteristic of the destructive "tornade." The island, "ce quignon de terre," is represented as virtually dead, "cette morte," threatened by and at the mercy of the "bêtes" and the "fougères" that are shown to be already "libres." The metaphors signify a geopolitical context of conflict, between "vous bêtes" and "cette morte"; between "vous libres fougères" and "les roches assassines"; between "les conques," suggestive of the island, and "leur destin"; even between the implied light of "midi" and the darkness associated with "les étoiles." Césaire suggests here a conflict between forces of oppression and destruction and other forces with an impulse toward liberation. The struggle takes place on an island, but one that shares a situational bond of worthlessness with other islands, in that they are "englouties comme un sou," and "oubliées comme un sou."

Against this background, the poetic voice identifies itself through the plural "nous" of line 14 ("mol glissement des grains de l'été que nous fûmes"). This is significantly a communal identity, with an already realized potential for regeneration and metamorphosis. The poet also assumes the roles of "bouche," of "suffète des îles englouties," and of "prophetè des îles oubliées," attempting to communicate with an audience, designated as "vous bêtes" and "vous libres fougères." The context evoked, within which this communication takes place, is that of "l'île," "cette morte," featuring "roches assassines" and "conques trop vastes pour leur destin."

The voice of the poet in this situation attempts to transcend the limitations of the island: "la bouche aux parois du nid." The poet assumes the role of responsible leadership, that of "sufféte," but also that of "prophéte" announcing the future of his people. Through the vision and the prophecy of the poet, the dead island, "cette morte," is restored to life; through the poetic activity implicit in the poem a metamorphosis takes place, "ce mol glissement des grains d'été que nous fumes."

The hope of change is implicit throughout the poem. For, even in the midst of the atmosphere of menace and danger, signs of hope appear: the "lèche de ciel" bore within itself signs of good weather to come; the "étoiles" suggest not only darkness, but also light, with associations of good fortune, "trèfles au ciel," and vitality, "gouttes de lait chu." Hope is at the heart of the "message" of this poem: the restoration of the divinity of the black man ("réadjustent un dieu noir mal ne de son tonnerre").

The poem functions as a means of concretizing this hope, and of articulating the poet's prophetic voice, his sense of responsibility and leadership. It illustrates the identity dilemma confronting the French Caribbean poet. The poet as a linking voice magically emerges out of the silence historically imposed on Blacks in a neo-colonial situation. It is essentially through the poem that the "black" voice acquires validity.

2. "Couteaux midi"

In the first pan of this poem, the subjective presence of the poet appears in the possessive and object pronouns of "ma foi," "mes paroles," "mes cris," "mes crocs de poivre," "mes lèvres," and "m'absente." The poet is evoked as a disembodied voice and mouth, involved in a dialogue, as the questions "Ils tirent à blanc?" and "Midi?" (posed five times) indicate. The poetic replies to the questions are always an affirmative "oui," which suggests the validity of the propositions advanced.

These propositions relate to the activities of blacks, and specifically to what the poet suggests occurs "quand les Nègres font la Révolution." He intimates, with evident irony, playing on common connotations of "blanc" and "noir," that "ils tirent à blanc," and supports the validity of the paradox by explaining that "le blanc est la juste force controversée du noir qu'ils portent dans le coeur. "The text suggests that the poet considers this an abortive, pseudo-revolution, doomed from the start by its own endemic contradictions, equivalent to a whitewashing process taking place under a pseudo midday sun, so pale in comparison to the tropical sun that it is to be greeted only with derisive laughter: "[…] les cornettes des soeurs de Saint Joseph de Cluny qu'elles lessivent sous les espèces de midi dans la jubilation solaire d'un savon tropical."

The poet, struck by the contrast between these two different noons, explores the significance which the tropical noon holds for him. He suggests that it provides a natural avenue of escape from the muzzling of his voice and limitations of a complacent and comfortable life: "Midi qui disperse dans le ciel la ouate trop complaisante qui capitonne mes paroles et où mes cris se prennent." The poetic voice shifts to a more assertive and affirmative mode, corresponding to the graphic shift from the common noun, "midi," disdain for which is suggested by "espèces de," to the proper "Midi." This contrasting "Midi" is invested with capacities which stand in opposition to the other "midi": the capacity for a presence affirmed even in darkness ("amande de la nuit"), and the capacity for speech ("langue"). This "Midi," too, is associated with the sensitivity that comes from emotional and social humiliations: "qui porte sur son dos de galeux." This "Midi" is suggestive of courageous patience and endurance and of the potential for creating movement: "met sur toutes les lignes de toutes les mains les trains." It is this "Midi" which, significantly, makes possible a break with the (white) world ("Midi somptueux qui de ce monde m'absente").

The attitude and activities of the poet change with the movement within the poem away from "ce monde." The poetic voice enters into full presence as the poem assumes a poetic "form" in the middle section of the poem. The poet becomes active and assumes the voice of revolt—a revolt so complete it embraces the extremes of "doux" and "dur":

     Doux Seigneur!
     durement je creche. Au visage des affameurs,
     au visage des insulteurs, au visage des
     paraschites it des éventreurs. Seigneur cur!
     doux je siffle; je siffle doux …

The chiasma signals the parallelism of the roles of poet ("je") and "Seigneur," as the poet moves from rebellion to acceptance. This new attitude is presented by the poet as indicative of his identity, characterized by wounds, but founded on dignity and commitment: "Oh! je tiens mon pacte / debout dans mes blessures où mon sang bat contre les fûts." The poetic identity includes solidarity with others of his race and the poetic voice sends a message of hope and humanitarianism, bringing into existence, at the end of this section, the day of a new revolution that transcends hatred:

     […] c'est le jour,
     un jour pour nos pieds fraternels
     un jour pour nos mains sans rancunes
     un jour pour nos souffles sans méfiance
     un jour pour nos faces sans vergogne

The final short prose section, which continues the discussion of the opening section, links the role of the poet to that of "les sorciers," suggesting the involvement of both poet and sorcerer in harnessing powers of potential ferocity and in creatively exploiting intimacy with the dark forces of nature: "l'intime férocité des étoiles."

The poet, in this poem, suggests a contrast, implicit in the title, between violent physical pseudo-revolution ("couteaux") and the lucidity ("Midi") of true revolt. The poet moves beyond embracing violence, to transform the lance-"couteau" into a kind of magic wand, as he assumes the role both of prophet predicting a future of hope, dignity and love, and of sorcerer, using materials supplied by his brother "Nègres" to participate in the creative activity of the cosmos. Once again, the poem becomes the connecting link between past and future, a hopeful echo of the "lost" black voice in the present of the French Caribbean.

3. "Barbare"

The poetic voice makes itself heard from the first line of the poem, in "C'est le mot qui me soutient," immediately suggesting the nature of the relationship between the poet and "le mot," which functions as a source of needed support for the poet. The poet is represented metonymically as "ma carcasse," on whom "le mot," as voice, strikes to produce sound and, by extension, life. In the second and third stanzas, the voice of the poet becomes identified and fused with the voices of others, sharing with them "nos faces belles" and "nos oreilles," within the context of the word that introduces and dominates even visually those two stanzas—"Barbare." In the final stanza, the poet fully assumes the identity of "barbare" and at the same time that of "le serpent cracheur," as he addresses a "vous," whose physical presence is indicated in "la chair velue de vos poitrines."

Contrast and conflict between the barbarian group which includes the poet and the other hairy-chested group are clearly indicated by the text. The poem thus sends a message of revolt, different from "les cris de révolte jamais entendus." The revolt in the poem involves investing a word with pejorative and insulting resonances with an aura of primitive nobility and power. The resonance of the word "barbare" is a reminder of psychological debasement, represented metaphorically in the text as the rusting effect of noon on the poet's carcass, in which ironically only true barbarism, characterized by cowardice and dishonesty, is being destroyed:

      C'est le mot qui me soutient
      et frappe sur ma carcasse de cuivre jaune
      où la lune dévore dans la soupente de la rouille les os barbares
      des lâches bêtes rôdeuses du mensonge.

In the second stanza, the poet suggests the magical power of language to affirm the validity and beauty of "nos faces"—an attitude of rejection which bears within itself the power of creation. In the following stanza, the poet uses the word "barbare" as a reminder of the past suffering and present condition of people who have been characterized as dead, but who are yet the life-blood of the earth, reminiscent of the situation of black South African miners: "des morts qui circulent dans les veines de la terre." "Barbare" is used also as a reminder of a spirit of revolt concealed behind a façade of dance and music: "et les cris de révolte jamais entendus / qui tournent à mesure et à timbres de musique."

The poet exploits the regenerative potential intrinsic in the word "barbare," so that it is represented as the magical and beautiful principle of life concealed in savage and reptilian forms normally regarded as loathsome ("amphisbène," "serpent," "gekko"), and with which he completely identifies: "Barbare moi." It is this vital principle that enables the poet to metamorphose ("qui de mes putrifiantes chairs me réveille") and adopt an attitude of direct and violent revolt ("me coller […] aux lieux mêmes de la force").

Through the use of the explicit and implicit "barbare"-"moi"-"poete" linkage, the poem itself functions as the theatre where a subversive linguistic revolution takes place, and as the means by which the word "barbare" achieves a truly healing significance. The poet, by appropriating and transforming the various implications of the word, validates the cultural perspective of the French Caribbean.

4. "Mot"

The poet refers to himself directly only in the first two shorter sections of this poem. At the beginning of the poem, the poet's "moi" serves as the point of departure for the poem, as the context, as source or sender, and as receiver of this word: "Parmi moi / de moi-même / a moi-même / […] en mes mains." At the beginning of the second section, the poet becomes a voice of hope: "j'aurai chance hors du labyrinthe." Soon afterwards, however, the poet becomes the object to be acted upon, at the mercy of, increasingly possessed by, the word ("me prendre," "me pendre," "que me clouent"). After this point, the poet virtually disappears from the poem as a self-referential voice. No further explicit references to a "moi" appear. The only direct indication of a subjective presence occurs in "savez-vous," while the vibration of the word "nègre" gathers momentum and dominates the remainder of the poem.

The word, unspecified at the opening of the poem, is lodged deep in the poet's psyche, inseparable from the poet's identity, and is evoked as a vital instinct, an automatic impulse of revolt: "le rare hoquet d'un ultime spasme délirant." The word becomes active and vibrates ("vibre") more and more throughout the poem. It is this vibration that gives the poet hope of escaping from the "labyrinthe" of his present situation. Hence, his willingness to submit to the emotional vibration, translated into a series of circular images that indicate the poet's delirium of magical possession, as he assumes the role, suggested by Arnold, of poet-priest and scapegoat at the center-stake of the voodoo temple: "au beau poteau-mitan des trés fraîches étoiles."

As the poem develops, the poet's "moi" is possessed by the word "nègre," which assumes an independent force of its own, evoking and conjuring, to the rhythm of a drum, images of humiliations, lynchings, horrible sufferings of mothers and children, and the burning of black bodies. The evocation of these horrors produces its own metamorphosis; the word "nègre," vibrating in the poet's unconscious, magically emerges as a symbol of resistance and revolt, of virility and dignity, successful beyond all expectation in obtaining liberty: "dru savez-vous / du tonnerre d'un été / que s'arrogent / des libertés incrédules."

The whole poem, therefore, concretely represents the transformation of the poetic "moi" into "le mot nègre," from the first to the second half of the poem, under the influence of a literal vibration within the poem itself. Hence, the poem functions as the arena within which this creative and liberating transformation takes place. The vibration of the word "nègre" within the poem has implications for the pivotal dilemma of French Caribbean writers. This poetic vibration counteracts the attempts at cultural silence and repression imposed on Blacks and becomes a manifestation of life, freedom, and creativity. The vibrant "mot" is the symbol of the authentic French Caribbean voice.

5. "Dit d'errance"

This poem, the poem with which Cadastre ends, illustrates the use of the poem as a means of both clarifying the poet's own identity and providing a catalyst, the poem itself, for other blacks, universally, to explore and validate their own identity as black people in a white-dominated society.

For the poet, there is a fusion between inner exploration and outward political commitment to his island and his people. At the beginning of the poem, he assumes the microcosmic mantle of all suffering humanity and of all alienation from self:

      Tout ce qui jamais fut déchiré
      en moi s'est déchiré
      tout ce qui jamais fut mutilé
      en moi s'est mutilé

This personal alienation is associated with an alienation in cosmic terms and necessitates a search for the other half of the identity: "au milieu de l'assiette de son souffle dénudé / le fruit coupé de la lune toujours en allee / vers le contour à inventer de l'autre moitié."

The reappraisal of the past that follows suggests only limited meaningful successes ("à peine peut-être certain sens") and even the possibility of having been led astray: "quand d'aucuns chantent Noël revenu / de songer aux astres / égarés." At this point, the poetic voice appears overwhelmed by a sense of failure, of lamentation: "tout est du tout déchu"; "j'ai bien en tête la saison si lacrimeuse." Indeed, the dominant characteristic of one part of the poet's fragmented identity, represented by his past experience of slavery, seems to be silence:

      Ciel éclaté courbe écorchée
      de dos d'esclaves fustigés
      peine trésorière des alizés
      grimoire fermè mob oubliés
      j'interroge mon passé muet

As the poet evokes the island which is part of his identity, "îls de sang," the island, like every island, is represented as sharing in the same condition of alienation and loss as the poet himself: "île maljointe île disjointe / toute île appelle / toute île est veuve." The loss for the island, as it is for the poet, is related to separation from the source of identity, Africa, represented by the civilizations of Bénin and Ifé, and his rhetorical question, in the name of all alienated Africans ("nous"), suggests his own doubt of ever being able to heal this breach: "tendrons-nous toujours les bras?"

The apostrophe that follows ("ô déchiré") may be read as an address to the poet's wounded and divided self, as he conjures up an image of triumphant reunification and healing, which leads him to a new state of consciousness, in which he assumes the priestly mantle of hope: "J'ai inventé un culte secret / mon soleil est celui que toujours on attend."

The poet adopts another role, that of lover ("corps féminin île retrouvée"), which becomes fused with his role as plaintive prophet ("moi sybille flébilant"). When he turns again to look back on his (shared) childhood past ("mes enfances"), the painful memories of communal failure with which he identifies ("j'ai vu un oiseau mâle sombrer") produce in him a sense of disillusionment: "je regarde le plus bas de l'année."

The poet's rather depressing impression of his past life, his doubts about his identity and his role, about whether he is indeed agent or victim, and about the validity of his concern with issues of black identity, are translated into lucid, self-reflexive ironic wit: "serais-je jouet de nigromance?" This question echoes the ambivalence of the title, "Dit d'errance," which suggests (in "errance") a lack of certainty on the part of the poet. As a result, however, of the process of rigorous self-examination and the awareness of identity linkages to Africa and his native island, the image of the "pierre" emerges to suggest both fixity and power, and the poem ends on a triumphant note, with the poet adopting the active, heroic role of lance:

      Or mieux qu'Antilia ni que Brazil
      pierre milliaire dans la distance
      épée d'une flamme qui me bourrelle
      j'abats les arbres du Paradis.

The foregoing analyses highlight certain aspects of poetic function in the poems: the relationship between the poet and a social order characterized by "vous"; the various roles assumed by the poet; the "messages" sent by the poem; and the general function of the poem itself. In Cadastre as a whole, the dominant roles adopted by the poet are those of leader and of voice: the leader and voice of revolt, the voice of prophecy and hope; the magician who protects the integrity and destiny of a people; even the scapegoat leader who endures and articulates the sufferings of his people in order to guarantee their survival and eventual triumph.

The poems presuppose a context of alienation from self, of loss of identity, dignity, nobility, beauty and power, of divisiveness and inhumanity. Within this context, which is in fact the social order in which the poem itself functions, the poetic act becomes an affirmation of contrary values. The constant "message" sent by the poems is one of hope: hope in the restoration of the dignity and divinity of the black man, hope in the triumph of humanitarianism, hope in the validity of true revolt.

Although references to an opposing "vous" occur, their relative rarity and indirectness, when compared to the references to a "moi" or a "nous," would tend to suggest that communication is directed not so much to the representatives of the oppressive and alienating social order but rather to the poet's self and to the group with whom the poet chooses to identify. This also tends to suggest that some of the implications of Scharfman's analysis, informed by Benveniste, are problematical. This factor, the direction of Césaire's communication, invests Césaire's poetry with a "revolutionary" function that is radically different from that discussed by Kristeva, who pointed to poetic language functioning paradoxically and unconsciously both to subvert and at the same time to maintain a social order, specifically the bourgeois technocratic structure of late nineteenth-century France. Césaire's poetry, in my view, deliberately transgresses such considerations. I see, furthermore, no separation in Césaire's poetic practice between the rhetoric of protest and subjective poetics, as Arnold suggests.

Indeed, the peculiarity of Césaire's situation, a poet with the problematical cultural identity of an educated Black, while at the same time a non-French Martinican Frenchman, gives a new significance to the term revolutionary. His poetic practice cannot be anything but revolutionary, as it operates harmoniously both inwardly and outwardly, linking and lancing, exploring, attacking, cutting, binding and healing all at once. This multifaceted revolutionary function of poetry, related to a need to affirm and protect the threatened integrity of identity, has remained a constant in Césaire's poetry. At the same time, Césaire has retained his conception of the poet as leader and prophet for a people. In a recent interview, discussing a poem entitled "Dyâli," which he had written in honor of his longtime friend and colleague, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Césaire explains: "'Dyâli' autrement dit 'le diseur de parole', le 'poète'[…]. Le Dyâli c'est aussi celui qui montre le chemin[…]."

Césaire himself, by his continued literary and political activity, has also been showing the way. What he has shown, what his poetry shows by its very existence and by its function as a literary artifact, both within the context of and in opposition to the mainstream socioliterary order of metropolitan France, is that French Caribbean poetry exists. Césaire's poetry proclaims its own identity as an authentically distinct cultural manifestation which is essentially Caribbean.

Jonathan Ngaté (essay date Spring 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5177

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, Aimé Césaire in the role of informed and sensitive reader-and-critic of his own work and that of others. Much of great value has already been written about him as a committed and inspiring writer, a charismatic political figure and even (if less so) as a literary theorist, but not enough yet about him as a critic whose views have been expressed on numerous occasions in prefaces to other people's books or in the Discours sur le colonialisme (1954), that essay which, in its uplifting eloquence, is truly a monument to intellectual honesty and moral courage and also the passionate expression of a commitment to political action.

From a literary/critical point of view, the opinion I find the most illuminating in the Discourse for my purpose here is about the nineteenth-century French poet, Lautreamont, not only because it is concisely useful, but more importantly because of the way in which it succeeds so dearly in pointing to an unavoidable perspective on Césaire's own literary texts:

the day will come when, with all the elements gathered together, all the sources analyzed, all the circumstances of the work elucidated, it will be possible to give the Chants de Maldoror a materialistic and historical interpretation which will bring to light an altogether unrecognized aspect of this frenzied epic, its implacable denunciation of a very particular form of society, as it could not escape the sharpest eyes around the year 1865.

No sharper eyes, it seems to me, have been looking into the Black worlds of Africa and the Americas (in their diversity) and into the overall world of the downtrodden since the 1930s than have Aimé Césaire's. And his uncanny ability to make pointed references to or to engage in a principled ransacking of the strongly similar colonial, and now neocolonial, experiences of people from those worlds should help make it clear that the "nous" (us) of the quotation from the Lettre à Maurice Thorez has very strong implications of racial and cultural as well as intellectual and ideological kinships. For a reader like myself, who has lived through the last decade or so of French colonial rule in Black Africa, Césaire has been nothing if not he through whose eyes I have learned to see my Umwelt, with unsettling clarity, and he with whom I have been reasoning things out through the kind of dialogue made possible by the act of reading. The dialogue, a cross-generational one, has been based on my recognition of the fact that the driving force behind Césaire's writing has been a burning "désir d'attester une humanité contestée ou en danger et celui d'étre par et pour soi-même," as Eboussi Boulaga would say. That this view, which accounts for my attempt at providing a complementary reading of "Crevasses," is not an idiosyncratic one will become evident from an overview of the ways in which some important writers and political activists of the post-World War Two generation have been responding to Césaire against the background of their own experiences with colonialism and neocolonialism.

I shall consider three of them, selected from different parts of Black Africa and the Caribbean: first, there is the late South African Steve Biko, founder of SASO (South African Students Organization) and the Black Consciousness movement, who highlighted the centrality of some of Aimé Césaire's pronouncements on race relations in his [Biko's] own analysis of the South African situation from the standpoint of Blacks as victims of apartheid by saying, in a 1972 article, that

"No race possesses the monopoly of beauty, intelligence and force, and there is room for all of us at the rendezvous of victory." I do not think Aimé Césaire was thinking about South Africa when he said these words.

Given his concluding comment, Biko did not have to quote from Césaire's Notebook of a Return to my Native Land to make his point, but that he did so can arguably be read as the expression of the exasperation of a young man who had reached the conclusion that, fair and acceptable though it may be, Césaire's general observation in a long poem first published in 1939 was one that could still not be applied to the South Africa of the 1970s, one in which colonial-as-strictly-racist politics still meant that racial inequality remained the bedrock of a regime controlled by a racial minority. As he doubtless knew, Césaire had also observed in the Discourse on Colonialism (written at a time when France still had a colonial empire) that one did not colonize innocently. Thus there is, strictly speaking, nothing surprising about Biko's elaborating on the point he had already made in order to add, ominously, that

so blatantly exploitative in terms of the mind and body is the practice of white racism that one wonders if the interests of blacks and whites in this country have not become so mutually exclusive as to remove the possibility of there being "room for all of us at the rendezvous of victory."

The white rulers of his country proved him right in his assessment of the situation in South Africa by murdering him soon thereafter. Thus, his death and also the very disturbing circumstances under which it occurred (he was killed by elements of the security forces while still in detention) all point to Biko's justification in holding on to a healthy dose of skepticism in the 1970s about prospects for racial harmony in his native South Africa.

Second, I shall consider the Congolese Sony Labou Tansi, whose seemingly flippant remark, "je ne suis pas à développer mais à prendre ou à laisser," is nothing if not a strikingly appropriate updating of the defiant Césairian line from the Cahier d'un retour au pays natal: "Accommodezvous de moi. Je ne m'accommode pas de vous.'" Labou Tansi is a declared African admirer of Aimé Césaire who sees clearly how important a force the latter remains, both as a dramatist and a political thinker, in the context of the years of so-called independence on a continent that remains subjugated, with the bulk of its population still on bended knees, as it were:

Le centre de ce lien [entre Césaire et l'Afrique] est le fait que l'Afrique est le plus recourbé des continents—or le drame césairien réside grosso modo dans un rapport douloureux avec la station verticale; il est celui de l'homme à la reconquête de la verticale.

Be it in Et les chiens se taisaient, La Tragedie du roi Christophe, Une tempete or Une saison au Congo, Césaire's theater is indeed insistently concerned with multiple forms of the struggles of the downtrodden, people bent to the breaking point under the full weight of their enslaving and/or neo-colonial masters. Labou Tansi's point here is therefore fairly clear: the people of Africa are engaged in a difficult struggle in order to be able to stand up by and for themselves and face the business of living as free human beings. Given this tragedy of the history of African peoples brought down to their collective knees by powerful and arrogant colonial masters and now, in many cases, by home-grown tyrants shamelessly manipulated by external forces in ways that give the very notion of political independence a new meaning, the point had to be made.

Finally, there is the Guadeloupean Danial Maximin whose literary filiation to Césaire in his very first novel L'Isolé soleil (1981) has been amply demonstrated by Clarisse Zimra. That she succeeds in making the intertextual link between Maximin and Césaire palpable is clear enough. But precisely because she does so, she is also able to make us aware that what is most striking about the novel is the fact that at the very moment we are convinced that Césaire is being acknowledged as a literary father, the novel itself is, thematically, and quite literally, asking to be read against the background of its own main characters turning toward the mother for sustenance because they find it difficult to resist the temptation to get rid of both real and symbolic fathers who have left them only a legacy of death. If it is Adrien who blurts out that, "Parfois, je me demande s'il ne faut pas nous débarrasser d'urgence de tous ces péres qui ne nous ont laissé que leur mort comme souvenir éclatant," it is his friend Marie-Gabriel who sees the idea through to its radical conclusion. After admitting that, "Le sentiment croissant que l'histoire n'est qu'un mensonge des hommes m'arrête aussi. Mensonge par rapport à la manière dont les femmes vivent leur histoire," she chooses to act in a way that is succinctly described and insightfully interpreted in this gloss by Zimra:

[…] on découvre, à la fin de L'Isole soleil, que la jeune fille a abandonné son projet de r/écriture du carnet paternel qui la forçait à écrire l'histoire des hommes, pour se tourner du côté du "Journal de Siméa."

En effet, le cahier de cette mère morte en la mettant au monde va l'aider à accomplir une r/écriture des origines qui soit vraiment sienne; celle de sa propre naissance. La première ébauche, dédiée au père ("L'Aire de la mer"), est abandonnée au profit d'un nouveau récit qu'elle intitule "L'Air de la mere."

That Maximin should have succeeded in getting this message through in L'Isole soleil while foregrounding his literary father's identity is what I find significant. Césaire has indeed become the "fondement d'une littérature antillaise authentique," as the Maryse Condé epigraph has it. And if we think also of Steve Biko and Sony Labou Tansi then we will have to admit, again with Maryse Condé, that Césaire is without question a "réference essentielle pour les écrivains négro-africains," be they francophone or not. To that group one could add readers, who, like the writers just listed, do not blindly follow the Afro-Martinican writer and statesman but are well aware that they often cannot help but define themselves in relation to him.

It is the sense of identification mentioned in the preceding paragraphs that enables me, as a reader coming out of French-speaking Black Africa, to feel fully justified in claiming the right to whisper along with Haitian poet Anthony Phelps, "Aimé Césaire/je vous viens de très prés," secure in the knowledge that the "pays natal" ("native land") that Césaire, as protagonist, longed for and "returned" to in his now famous poem, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, is one that figuratively extends beyond the confines of the West Indies. The status of that "pays natal" was clear to yet another Haitian, Maximilien Laroche, when he evoked "… cette appartenance de tous les damnés de la terre à un même pays natal, terre de souffrance qui s'étend à tous les continents où se trouvent des exploités, des dominés et des colonisés."

In light of the above it should be possible to see why I am interested in the poem "Crevasses," in which we find Césaire in the role of reader-as-critic, an informed and sensitive critic. What I would like to argue is that in this poem, from Césaire's latest published collection of poems, Moi, laminaire … (1982), the poet is involved in "reading" his whole oeuvre against the background of some responses to him and his work. But first, let us look at Bernadette Cailler's illuminating reading of this poem which she gave at the first international colloquium on Césaire's literary works in Paris in November 1985. I shall limit myself here to the major points she made and with which I generally agree. These will in turn, with some minor modifications, enable me to propose a complementary reading of the same poem.

It is Bernadette Cailler's contention that

Dans le poème "Crevasses," ainsi que dans d'autres textes du recueil [Moi, laminaire …], il semble qu'ait été privilégié le nadir du lieu de rêverie, point plus proche de la survie que de la résurrection, plus proche de l'instant fugitif que de l'éternité, point-merge, retrait lagunaire où se meut une constellation de vocables explorant l'efficacite du creux, de la blessure, de l'égratignure, de la dent.

The usefulness, or better still, the appositeness of the emphasis on the dream state involved here has to be recognized since it associates what is happening in this poem much more closely with survival (and the implied constant human struggle to ensure it) than with resurrection, which would point not only to an instantaneous result but also to the passivity of the humans involved and the necessary intervention of an external agent, a supernatural force. Instead, we are made to more fully appreciate the weight of the instant (or perhaps a succession of instants) in which, through words, the poetic subject explores and gives a reading of the implications of the metaphorical crevice he both is and inhabits: the things brought to the light of day as a result prove to be so many teethmarks of a history of continuous suffering, a lived history, that has left a wound against which the power of metaphorical language is being tried.

And the speaker of the poem is described by Cailler as an "onnarrateur-personnage (identité perdue?) le plus souvent rongeur, qui érode et use, ou insecte, qui rampe et s'insinue." Striking and of extreme importance here are not only the verbs of action used to describe the speaker but also their full implication: to erode and to wear out, to crawl, but only in order to insinuate the self into "la fissure" that the critic points to later. The speaker is indeed "à quatre pattes" but that is to be seen as part of a tactic of defense "contre la dangers la moins évidents, logés jusque dans la recoins les plus inattendus, y compris son propre trou de cloporte ou de poulpe."

Like the preceding thematic summary, the characterization of the poetic style of "Crevasses" is one I also find generally acceptable:

Au plan poétique, au rêve d'une écriture épique, triomphante et jubilatoire, s'opposent ici de courts versets, à l'articulation peu élaborée, phrases à peine formées, déclarations quasi prosaïques, alliées à de courses exclamations ou questions; l'expression est ici réduite à des souffles-perceptions essentials: poétique de la clandestinité, de la survie. Il n'est ici ni cri brûlant de l'oiseau fabuleux, flamme sortie des cendres, ni parole incantatoire de sorcier, ni rythme haletant de danseur-musicien; il n'est ici ni narrateur ou personnage fabuleux héroïque, mythe producteur de mythes (Christophe, Toussaint …), ni texte fabuleux, poème tragique du Rebelle ou roman polyphonique d'une Histoire."

There is no denying the value of this description, even if, as we shall see, one is prepared to take issue with the view that what is involved here is merely a "poétique de la clandestinité." For as insightful as she is in her reading of the poem, Cailler seems to stumble toward the end of her analysis when she suggests that one could see in "Crevasses" the "articulation symbolique d'une politique de compromis, de la négociation, de la démarche prudente, pour ne pas dire craintive, stagnante, ou défaitiste." In context the last two adjectives prove to be too strong and, in the final analysis, unjustified.

If we start with Michael Dash's welcome reminder that Moi, laminaire … is a "guarded exercise in self-definition," we begin to understand the hesitancy in "Crevasses" to which Cailler is sensitive but whose importance she overstates. It should be understood that the persona of the poem is not so much a neutral on as it is the writer himself whose poetic self is being presented, or better still, dramatized as a metonym, Ronnie Scharfman's observations on the subject in Césaire's Cahier are helpful at this point:

… the subject is constantly finding itself and losing itself again, being decentered, writing itself, reading itself, and erasing itself. The text abounds in contradictory moments of selfhood for the subject that must be appropriated as the diagnostic tools for a diacritical reading of the relationship between engagement and a language of the self."

Looking at the form of "Crevasses," with its resort to question asking and the use of exclamations, and taking into account the tone of the poem (especially at the end), it is possible to claim that, as an act of communication, the poem dramatizes the persona's willingness both to explain and to justify his own writing: the interlocutors, present only by implication since they are never explicitly named, could fall into two major groups. The first one would be comprised of those people who have been taking to task both the writer and his brand of Negritude, along with its translation into political action. For Daniel Boukman, for instance, Césaire, as "Orphée Volcan" is nothing but a tool of French colonial forces on the island of Martinique. So necessary is Orphée Volcan's presence that, when it is discovered that he has died, no effort is spared to bring him back to life, for reasons that the Banker of the play is made to give, rather melodramatically:

LE COMMERCANT—[…] Vous estimez donc indispensable de tout tenter pour le remettre sur pied?

LE BANQUIER—Absolument! Il faut rallumer le phare pour qu'il recommence à fasciner les papillons qui tournoieront, tournoieront, et, phitt! disparus les problèmes et la réalite!

LE COMMERCANT—Je ne comprends pas très bien. Qui tient le rôle du phare? Qui vent les papillons?

LE BANQUIER—Le phare, c'est Orphée le poète; les papillons de nuit, ceux qui gobent ses poèsies; de petite fonctionnaires, la classe intellectuelle … le peuple, quoi, vous comprenez?

The second group of interlocutors would include people of good will who might simply not be too sure they understand the writer and his aims.

The net effect is that, whether they identify with one group or the other, readers of this poem will find themselves fulfilling the function of a jury evaluating an answer to a question or a challenge that the very form of the poem itself is acknowledging.

Published more than four decades after Cahier, Moi, laminaire … could not help but draw attention to the fact that its author is not just anybody but rather a "référence essentielle" in Caribbean and francophone Black literature in general, to quote Maryse Condé. To be a point of reference at this time in the history of the Black world is of course to be in a position to generate controversy, even unwillingly. And the preliminary notes to the whole of Moi, laminaire … are clear on this point:

Le non-temps impose au lemps la tyrannic de sa spatialité: dans toute vie il y a un nord et un sud, et l'orient et l'occident. Au plus extrême, ou, pour le moins, au carrefour, c'est au fil des saisons survolées, l'inégale lutte de la vie et de la mort, de la fervour et de la lucidité, fût-ce celle du désespoir et de la retombée, la force aussi toujours de regarder demain. Ainsi va toute vie. Ainsi va ce livre, entre soleil et ombre, entre montagne et mangrove, entre chien et loup, claudiquant et binaire. Le temps aussi de régler leur compte à quelques fantasmes et à quelques fantômes.

Not surprisingly, Césaire-as-the-persona of "Crevasses" gives every indication of being aware of the precariousness of his position and that explains his determination to see to it that he not be misunderstood. Consequently, the poet-as-persona gradually turns into a close reader and a critic of his own work and of some responses to it which, combined, become the intertext for this poem.

The enunciating subject hides at first, as it were, behind the "je" of the epigraph from Goethe's Faust: "Je grimpe depuis trots cents ens/et ne puis atteindre le sommet." The tone here, in this truncated passage, is not so much that of a complaint as it is that of a statement of fact, with the emphasis on the sustained effort to keep on climbing. Because the epigraph comes from the "Walpurgis Night" scene in Part One of the play, it could be read as a hint by the poet about his status as one of the downtrodden and, in context, an outcast reduced to being a voice calling from below. But that is not all: a quick look at Faust will reveal that not only did that work set an impressive precedent for the variety of tones we find in this poem but it also insistently returned to the very theme Césaire draws attention to in his choice of verses for the epigraph. Two examples should suffice: "For man must strive, and striving he must err," we are told in Part One of Faust, whereas Part Two chimes in with the no less revealing verses: "For he whose strivings never cease / is ours for his redeeming." If the quotations represent a none too subtle way of suggesting that the "I-subject" of this poem is Faust-like, then it is only fair to point out that Goethe's Faust was saved in the end, his "weaknesses" notwithstanding.

It is also worth noting that at another level, the 300 years of the epigraph arc a clear enough echo of the title of an Edouard Glissant novel for example, Le Quatrième siècle, and thus it draws attention to a time frame that is of considerable importance to history-conscious Afro-Caribbeans. This in turn will remind us that the "je" of the epigraph is to be read as the promise of a "nous." a fact that is confirmed by the use of the French indefinite pronoun "on" in the text of the poem itself, an "on" that has the value of a "nous." Significant also is the use of "crevasses" (in the plural) in the title of the poem, whereas the persona concludes the poem by referring to himself as a "crevasse" (singular). As a "crevasse" among "crevasses" he is of course pointing to a continuity in Caribbean textual production that becomes his way of acknowledging the consciousness he has of his place in recent history.

The opening lines of the poem contain both a statement of general principle and an illustration of poetic practice, both of which draw attention to 1) the reliance on words to confront a world in which blackness still has to be asserted and, 2) the exploration made possible by the poet's habit of exploiting to the fullest extent possible the gap, that is to say also, the link, between sound and sense: "La sombre épellation établit sa loi: … Ure … Usure! Barbarie … Blessure!" The play of alliteration and assonance not only helps call attention to key words whose resonance for readers of Cesairian texts should be very obvious, it also helps keep the focus on the "blessure" (wound) that the persona has had to inhabit as a result of a history (represented by time with a capital T) he now seems to have taken a full measure of: "Le Temps, lui, connaît le blason et démasque à temps son mufle forban. Précisément." "Blessure" here is of course inseparable from verses such as the following from the Cahier:

Que de sang dans ma mémoire! Dans ma memoire sont les / lagunes. Elles sont couvertes de têtes de morts. Elles / ne sont pas couvertes de nénuphars. Dans ma mémoire vent des lagunes. Sur leurs rives ne sont / pas étendus des pagnes de femmes. Ma mémoire est entourée de sang. Ma mémoire a sa ceinture / de cadavres!

If it is a full grasp of history that makes possible the identification of "je" (the I-subject) with "nous" (the we-subject), that identification is not an end in itself, nor does it offer sure protection against mistakes. Among them would be a possible fall into the trap of history itself which, in its multidimensionality, not to say its opacity, still has the potential for confounding: "On a toute licence: on avance, on pénètre dans le taillis, dans le fouillis. Tel est le piège." Only an awareness of the existence and the nature of that trap enables the collective self to adopt an outwardly humiliating posture, under the weight of history, without allowing it to prevent the self from moving along in time: "On marche à quatre pattes. On se dépètre. Courbé toujours mais avancant." One cannot read such a passage without thinking indeed (as Cailler has noted) of the major characters of Césaire's plays: the Rebel, King Christophe, Lumumba, and Caliban. These are all characters who knew how to turn the weaknesses and the humiliation of their own people into fuel for action that would set them free and standing upright. In this light, Sony Labou Tansi's summary of what accounts for Césaire's power of attraction for African readers and theatergoers, cited earlier, is thoroughly convincing: "… or le drame césairien réside grosso modo dans un rapport douloureux avec la station verticale; il est celui de l'homme à la reconquête de la verticale." Success in that search for the opportunity to stand upright and to face (and in the process make) history is of course not something as inevitable as, say, a river flowing into another river or into the sea. Consequently, dogmatic assertions to the effect that there is one and only one ready-made answer to all the problems of the collective self is unacceptable:

On tourne en rond. La naïvete est d'attendre qu'une voix, je dis bien qu'une vole vous disc: par ici lo sortie! N'existe que le noeud. Noeud sur noeud. Pas d'embouchure.

Reading such a passage now, we can better appreciate the care that had gone into the formulation of the definition of Negritude put forward by Césaire in the Cahier; long on what Negritude is not, it also emphasizes what it does without dogmatically pointing to very specific ways in which it ought to proceed:

    ma négritude n'est pas une pierre, sa surdité ruée contre / la clameur du jour
    ma négritude n'est pas une tale d'eau morte sur l'oeil mort de la terre
    ma négritude n'est ni une tour ni une cathédrale
    elle plonge dans la char rouge du sol
    elle plonge dans la char ardente du ciel
    elle troue l'accablement opaque de sa droite patience

The tone of this passage clearly runs counter to the openly heroic and confident one the self adopts later on in the same Cahier:

je ne me dérobe point. Faites de ma tête une tête de proue et de moi-même, mon coeur, ne faites ni un père ni un frère ni un fils, mais le père, mais le frère, mais le fils ni un mari, mais l'amant de cet unique peuple.

Later on, in the play Une saison au Congo, Lumumba will be made to adopt a tone that is a successful mix of the aforementioned two, a tone that effectively prepares us for the language of "Crevasses":

C'est d'elle, d'elle-même, que l'Afrique a faim! C'est pourquoi je ne me veux ni messie ni mahdi. Je n'ai pour arme que ma parole, je parle, et j'éveille, je ne suis pas un redresseur de torts, pas un faiseur de miracles, je suds un redresseur de vie, je parle, et je rends l'Afrique à elle-même! Je parle, à je rends l'Afrique au monde! Je parle, et, attaquant à leur base, oppression et servitude, je rends possible, pour la première fois possible, la fraternite!

Not surprisingly, this language of humility elicits a less than favorable response from the crowd that had been generally supportive of Lumumba up to that point in the play. It finds itself reacting with uncertainty, according to the stage direction.

I would like to suggest that it is a keen awareness of the fact of a similar reaction of uncertainty on the part of others (especially his own people) that makes the I-subject's language of humility sound so self-conscious and grounded in a present that is implicitly full of doubts, if not outright challenges in "Crevasses." If the self-consciousness accounts for the grammatical switch from "on" to the disjunctive pronoun "moi" and finally the subject pronoun "je," I am also prepared to argue that it is plainly an act of courage and intellectual honesty to admit what is being admitted at the end of the poem: "Moi qui rêvais autrefois d'une écriture belle de rage! Crevasse j'aurai tenté." In a very real sense, this acknowledgment by the I-subject could be read as a direct answer to Afro-Caribbean and especially Martinican texts such as Guy Cabort-Masson's Lettre à Aimé Césaire (1981), which is polemically modeled on Césaire's own polemical Lettre à Maurice Thorez, and generously quotes Césaire against himself in order to arrive at the conclusion that the "depute" and mayor of Fort-de-France no longer is the champion of his people. Understanding this, one would have to conclude that there is nothing clandestine going on here at all.

As the I-subject therefore, the Césaire we have in this poem is no longer the purveyor of, but rather a commentator on, a master-theme: the need to awaken and to give the "pays natal" (which at one level is Africa and its diaspora) back to itself. In the process of commenting on that master-theme, he also succeeds in justifying his oeuvre, which is nothing if not a master text, in the context of today's Black world as Maryse Condé makes clear. This major literary figure's challenge to his unnamed interlocutors in the poem, a challenge so deafening in the end precisely because it is not explicitly stated, is simply this: I have been doing my part for years. What are you really prepared to do?

Read this way, this poem is Césaire's invitation to a responsible "prise de parole" by his readers-as-his-people and, beyond that, a corollary commitment to meaningful action. And the focus at the end, once again, will have been shifted away from the I-subject to the we-subject and the need for an ongoing and fruitful dialogue, as opposed to mere name calling or posturing. This is really a poem about the responsibilities of "I and I," to use the language of the Rastafarians.

Clarisse Zimra (essay date Spring 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5093

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 access to a common future. Edouard Glissant calls it "a prophetic reading of the past" (preface to Monsieur Toussaint). But, as he also cautions in Le Discours antillais, this textual strategy may well elide an alienating present and prolong a self denying cultural stasis that renders political action impossible.

The sociological approach still predominates, whether among critics (I. F. Case's damning Césaire's inability to write about contemporary Martinique) or writers (Daniel Maximin condemning Glissant's unwillingness to do likewise as "evasiveness"). It would appear that the Caribbean corpus, a literature initially triggered by specific historical conditions, must always return to its ideological origins. This may account in no small part for the uneasy dance between myth and history in the Caribbean corpus, a feature particularly prominent in the Cesairean topos of the ancestral quest.

The question of the Ancestor remains a constant of Caribbean literature after Césaire as well. It took Maryse Condé a considerable African detour before she could trust herself to face her own "mangrove swamp." Her first novel stages this alienation with maximum impact when the child asks, "what were we before" and the Caribbean father refuses to entertain the notion that there may have been a past "before." Whether plaintive (in Condé's Hérémakhônon), wistful (in Léon Damas's Hoquet: "Désastre / parlez-moi du désastre / parlez-m'en"), or defiant (in Maximin's L'Isolé soleil: "Il nous faut drageonner nos pères"), the child's insistent question is the textual sign of a never-ending tug of war between the mythical and the historical dimension. From Derek Walcott's sobering words on selective amnesia in "The Muse of History,'" to Glissant's gradual evisceration of his once admirable "Negator," the question triggers an imaginery projection backward that must locate its object in an immemorial past before any move forward. Cahier d'un retour au pays natal is exemplary in this.

Admirable Question

In the wake of the Cahier, the poet had taken his stand. Fresh from the shock of his Haitian tour, Césaire delineated in the 1945 "Poesie et connaissance" his poetics of Caribbean authenticity as the weaving of the private, obsessional, self with the collective, ancestral, unconscious. But, as the whole Tropiques adventure made clear, it was a genetic unconscious nonetheless radically grounded in a specific moment:

Ce qui émerge, c'est 1e fonds individuel. Les conflits intimes, les obsessions … Tou la chiffres du message personnel …

Ce qui émerge aussi, c'est le vieux fonds ancestral. Images héreditaires, que seules peut remettre à jour, aux fins de déchiffrement, l'atmosphère poétique …

The poet starts with the retrieving of long forgotten selves buried deep within the collective memory. However, the very conditions of such a plunge are historically determined, as the Cahier finds time and again. At the time this was written, diving into the unconscious and recovering the African past seemed feasible, if not identical, projects. Thus, Suzanne Césaire in "Léo Frobénius et le problème des civilisations": "… l'Afrique ne signifie pas seulement pour nous un élargissement vers l'ailleurs, mais approfondissement de nous mêmes." The young rebels of Martinique, looking at Price-Mars's example on the next island, had every reason to be optimistic. The final movement of the Cahier, going downward and inward in order to expand outward and upward ("ailleurs"), attempts to answer the challenge it poses somewhat ironically for itself: "Qui et quels nous sommes? / Admirable question." Close to half-a-century later, in his 1982 preface to moi, laminaire Césaire would reconsider this poetic project and answer it otherwise, raising over his whole corpus the ghost of blind, self-deluded, limping Oedipus, torn between east and west, reason and imagination, past and present, myth and history: "Ainsi va toute vie. Ainsi va ce livre, entre soleil et ombre, entre montagne et mangrove, entre chien et loup, claudiquant et binaire."

My contention here is simple: it is against Césaire's definitions of the ancestral ground that much of subsequent Caribbean literature measures itself, whether deliberately or not. To give but one example, Condé's paradigmatic "what were we before" destabilizes the solid ground of Césaire's earlier "who and what we are." To his glorious African depth sounding, she opposes a version of Walcott's radical amnesia, the surface of a blank Caribbean wall. Césaire's last work, laminaire, moves away from a unified, collective mythical dimension into a fragmented, tentative, historical consciousness, halfway between his glorious past soundings and Condé's radical negation. A clear understanding of the ancestral permutations in the Cesairean corpus, in turn, gives us a clearer sense of the writers who have followed in his footsteps.

For the Negritude generation, Caribbean history consisted of a before and after, a reading often modeled after the paradigmatic metaphor of western intervention in the Caribbean, Shakespeare's Tempest, turned upside down. It was a frankly oppositional move, whose binary dance of difference was not always stable. Within this world, Césaire's Ancestor has remained a cipher of polarization both from within and from without, the trope of the Other's otherness. It represents the black self as non-white invading and engaging the white discourse; yet, it is also polarized within itself in a kind of mirroring effect oscillating between Caliban, the primal autonomous being, wild and free, and Toussaint, the all too willing victim of white cunning sacrificed on the altar of nationalism. In the Cesairean corpus, Caliban and Toussaint are sometimes figures of opposition and sometimes of complementarity, the Rebel borrowing from each. Toussaint, the ghost erased from white history books spitting up his lungs in Napoleon's dank cell, is a figure that the 1930s Cahier seeks simultaneously to reclaim for history, as the origin of black historical consciousness in the Caribbean, and turn into tragic myth, a dead hero greater than any one of his living descendants. As original presence on the primeval shore, Shakespeare's imaginary cannibal who at the end of Une Tempête sings his African freedom is a figure of myth too; for Césaire's 1969 play pointedly ends before the test of history begins. Or rather, with Prospero's final descent into lifeless impotence, colonial history has ended but post-colonial liberation has yet to begin. Conversely, from the 1946 oratorio to the 1956 play, the symbolic trajectory of Et les chiens se taisaient seems to move away from myth into more factual history. Yet, the successive versions of Chiens, down to the latest one in 1974, show clearly that neither dimension is relinquished. Trying to connect the corpus's fluctuations to the writer's own, critics have spent an inordinate amount of ink on the relationship between the poet and the politician. Given Césaire's highly oblique, deliberately opaque, style and the complexity of the issue itself, it is impossible to separate the strands neatly, even when the poet leaves the realm of openly creative writing for the more sobering arena of the political essay. In their biblical echoes, with their eternal present tense, the famous concluding words of Toussaint Louverture: "Au commencement est Toussaint Louverture," do indicate how hard it is for the Caribbean imagination to separate history from myth in excavating the ancestral ground.

In the Caribbean text, the absence of the Ancestor is everywhere. It represents simultaneously the inheritance and the eviscerating of a particularly obsessive sentimental reading of European Romanticism, from Bug-Jargal onward. The inversion of the false white father who refuses to acknowledge his mulatto progeny (from Sejour to Fanon, Capecia to Manicom), that of the defeated black father who could not protect his (from Thouret to Lacrosil, Condé to Schwarz-Bart), subtend Negritude's vision of an individual liberation that must precede the collective one at the risk of death—to follow Césaire's rough unfolding in the Cahier. What Ronnie Scharfman sees through Lacanian categories as the salient feature in the Cahier, "the binding of desire with violence," signals the inadequation of the child-self to the intended father-Ancestor, perhaps because of the inadequacy of the model. The temptation—or the trap—is to posit a Negritude self as a phallic father indeed, but a better one. The famous, defiant passage on those who have invented nothing, a "how to" for black self-refashioning, briefly gives in to that urge, before transcending it in an epistemological shift. Among other things, the Cahier is also a warning on the simplistic danger of a binary oppositional vision.

In the justly famous and always moving shift, the shackled poetic self frees itself in a series of powerful kinetic images, starting with the simple standing up hand in hand with the beloved island; or rather hand in fist. For the child's tiny open hand, the gesture of trust, is engulfed by the giant knotted fist, a gesture of protection that triggers the total immersion downward into "la négraille," the nigger-scum, a plunge into a historically anchored collective self that prepares the illimited, unanchored self-hurtling upward of ritual rebirth. Reversing the initial roles, this now gigantic self leads, the tiny "mote-dust" of a country follows, each led ever upward by the ascending Dove: "monte, / Colombe / monte / monte / monte / Je te suis …"

The very intensity of this final prayer courts a realization ever deferred. Although it seeks to inscribe the autonomous black self in the text by establishing a clear line to an authentic Ancestor, the Cahier fails to maintain a stable ancestral figuring, as does Césaire's next dramatization of the question, Et les chiens se toisaient. The Rebel attempting to sound his deeper African self must choose something or someone other than the false historical fathers, whose judgment he refuses by appealing to the African gods, primitive Greece dovetailing primeval Africa: "Pourquoi aurais-je peur du jugement de mes dieux? qui a dit que j'ai trahi?" As Suzanne Césaire had implied, the only way into the authentic self is through myth, a choice that signals a characteristic turning away from contemporary reality. The blood shed is called "communiel" and the emphasis kept firmly on the collective outcome. At the end of Les Chiens, the redoubling of motifs marks the fully mythical dimension: as the Ancestor of a new people, the Rebel becomes his own ancestor as well. But such outcome is still far in the future, as implied by the subjunctive mode, a vision rather than a fact: "que de mon sang oui, de mon sang / je fonde ce peuple."

The ideological gap between the two versions has usually been attributed to Césaire's own ideological fluctuations at the time. In this case, the autobiographical does not satisfactorily account for the fact that neither version chooses either mythical or historical dimension clearly. It might be more fruitful to look at the successive versions as modulating an ancestral question that has no fixed answer, given Césaire's habitually constant (rather than consistent) refiguring of symbols.

Ce qui est à moi

A precise scene connects the Cahier to Les Chiens, matrix whence all ancestral figuring flows. It is that of the blood baptism, the first step toward a Caribbean definition of self. In Les Chiens, the execution of the cockroach-eyed master, who, given the realities of plantation life, could well be the executioner's father, is claimed as the moment that ushers in the authentic self: "Que de sang au fond de ma mémoire (…) Je frappai, le sang gicla. C'est le seul baptême dont je me souvienne aujourd'hui." The execution that occurs out of the frame, off camera, before the beginning of Les Chiens, makes its symbolic significance possible. In Le Cahier, the phrase had appeared but had been undercut by a failure of nerve, the memory of rebellions eventually drowned in the master's liquor that made betrayal possible (as, we are told, Mackandal's was):

Que de sang dans ma mémoire. Dans ma mémoire sont des lagunes, elles sont couvertes de têtes de morts …

Ma mémoire est entourée de sang. Ma mémoire a sa ceinture de cadavres! et mitrailles de barils de rhum génialement arrosant nos révoltes ignobles …

Of course, the Rebel, too, has been betrayed by his own. However, Le Cahier reworks otherwise the theme of betrayal that is historically intertwined with the theme of constant uprisings, offering a historical ancestor that makes positive self-refiguring possible. To the dishonorable betrayal of Mackandal by his own people, his inebriated coconspirators, to the dishonorable betrayal of the Rebel by his own people, cowards afraid of white revenge, Le Cahier opposes an honorable counter-example, that of Toussaint kidnapped under the flag of truce by a dishonorable enemy:

      Ce qui est à moi
      c'est un homme seul emprisonné de blanc
      c'est un homme seul qui défie la cris
      blancs de la mort blanche
      C'est un homme que fascine
      l'épervier blanc de la mort blanche …
      La splendeur de ce sang n'éclatera-t-elle point.

Retrieved from the silence of white history, the dying man is made to belong to black (rather than white) depth consciousness in a movement that answers violence with murder. "Ce qui est a mod" has been triggered by the gory sequence of the Middle Passage ("Et je me dis Bordeaux et Nantes et Liverpool et New York et San Francisco … / terres rouges, terres sanguines, terres consanguines," a sequence that is but the prelude to the Cesairean leitmotiv that connects several works ("que de sang dans ma mémoire"). This leitmotiv, in turn, introduces the sequence of the father-master's execution by the son-slave and signals the birthing of the true Caribbean now free, as in Les Chiens, to claim the Ancestor of his choice: himself. Thus, Le Cahier and Les Chiens present what looks like a joint version of positive self-birthing.

Critics have abundantly commented on the fact that, in the description of Toussaint's white death, Césaire operates an epistemological reversal. Deconstructing western values, the upending of color categories gives a heightened emotional impact to this scene of remembering that, in turn, makes the execution of the master possible. But it is, as well, a remembering of the contingency of defeat. In self-defeated Haiti, the fulgurant splendor of this sacrificial blood has yet to explode. Toussaint remains here trapped and his death in exile is further mocked by Christophe's own failure soon to come—as Césaire's next play was to explore, a political failure triggered by his people's failure of imagination (or, one might say more gently, their human frailties). By analogy, a pall is thrown over the true outcome of the Rebel's sacrifice (it, too, happens off camera and cannot be witnessed by us). Thus, the exaltation of the future tense, subtly undermined by the negative-interrogative form ("La splendeur de ce sang n'éclatera-t-elle point"), as in the final subjunctive wish of the Rebel ("que de mon sang … je fonde ce peuple"), remains the sign of "a dream deferred." To wish it to happen is to acknowledge that it has not and, simultaneously, to fear that it may not.

Yet again myth seems to surge through the palimpsest of history, since the self-birthing voice who acknowledges Toussaint as Ancestor in a baptism of blood is, so nakedly, that of Caliban. The "ce qui est à moi" of Le Cahier is Caliban's response to Shakespearean Prospero's boast: "this thing of darkness is mine." The claim of common humanity makes Prospero unable or unwilling to relinquish moral responsibility for his acts, a position of liberal humanism that may hide the darker imperialist urge upon which Césaire's 1969 Une Tempête will eventually "signify" (to use Gates's fashionable term).

Une Tempête: Adaptation de 'La Tempête;' de Shakespeare pour un theatre noir may well hark back to a more ancient mode; that of Les Chiens. It is as if the limitations of history, as confronted in the intervening plays, Christophe and Une Saison au Congo, were to be replayed as myth, but a postlapsarian myth now put through the process of degradation by the recent "years of African independence." If we hear Caliban distinctly proclaiming "U'huru," at the beginning of the play, we can no longer see him at the end. The son of Sycorax sings himself in the Other's language ("la liberté, ohé, la liberté"), and we can barely make it out. Is it feebly heard because Caliban's own resolve—and, therefore, its exemplary quality—has weakened? Or is it feebly heard because we hear it through Prospero's own weakening physical and spiritual condition? Césaire leaves us with this ambivalence.

It is likewise with the white death, Toussaint's trope. Presented as the silenced collective history that must be reclaimed through the power of the imagination, it is immediately absorbed as a potentially mythical figuring of the past in Le Cahier—albeit one trailing historical contingencies in its turbulent wake. The famous "what is mine" sequence constructs an analogue between Haiti and Martinique, the past and the present, the humiliated nigger-scum and the emerging black self eager to inscribe otherwise the very past the white memory has appropriated. The binary temptation persists, a hint that the poetic self has a hard time moving out of the subject/object, myth/history trap when excavating the ancestral ground.

One can excavate this ancestral ground otherwise, and go back to the hortatory quotation cited above: "La splendeur de ce sang n'éclatera-t-elle point?" The future tense of spurted blood expressed the wish for the moment of explosive self-baptism, hallowed by another image of spurted blood, the Master's execution ("le sang gicla," a recurrent image in the Cesairean corpus), when the slave, by taking back his rightful name, that of Rebel, is giving birth to himself. This moment of fulgurant birthing connects us to that other constant of Césaire's poetic landscape, the volcano, cipher of physical as well as spiritual liberation, and anchors us back, squarely, on Caribbean soil.

With the natural imagery of the Caribbean landscape comes a fairly consistently polarized bestiary. To give but one instance, the positive thoroughbred ("pur sang," with its punning on racial purity as well as "bad blood," including that of the Rimbaldian variety), drawing on the boundless primeval freedom in the mythical time before time, is usually opposed to the negative mangy dog, steel jaws tearing the flesh of the runaway slave, drawing on the direct experience of a recent, historical past. As we observed before in Césaire, the outside polarization is often mirrored inside, within the same image cluster. For instance, Les Chiens is able to play on both registers, master's mastiffs and cynocephalic gods. Its signifying downward dive through Ancient religions (Egyptian or Greco-Roman) retrieves the positive god of a former consciousness: the psychopomp who presides over a different poetic passage, Anubis/Cerberus. Moreover, in the expanding doubling constitutive of myth, the dog-faced god is, often, also pictured as the monkey-faced god, willing mediator between the human and the divine. As the Yoruba trickster Eshu, his pranks emphasize the unpredictable nature of the human connection to the divine but never severs it. As the flying Anuman of India, he is the harbinger of the Word, who brings knowledge, culture and, above all, writing to the human species. He is, as well, the giant laughing Monkey-God carved into the stone of pre-Columbian temples all over the Mexican peninsula. A common symbol runs through all these avatars, one that, tapping the collective memory of the folktale, fuses myth and history without contradiction within the only syncretic ancestral trope that is uniquely Caribbean.

"Beau sang giclé" is an homage to the folktales rescued from oblivion in the pages of Tropiques by way of Lafcadio Hearn. Although the poem appears in Ferrements (1960), it clearly harks back, in its elusive imagery of a beheading, to the 1948 Soleil cou coupé, the collection that is usually considered Césaire's most "surrealistic," the critics' perplexed stamp of good housekeeping in the face of a violently fragmented subject. It is also connected to the earlier collection born of the war years, Les Armes miraculeuses, through two image clusters; first, the famous machete stab of the opening, a sort of beheading, and, second, the sacred bird: "Le grand coup de machète du plaisir rouge en plein front … quand mourir avait le goût du pain et la terre et la mer un goût d'ancêtre et cet oiseau qui me crie de ne pas me rendre …" The sacred bird of nonsurrender, often depicted with phoenix-like qualities, reappears throughout the corpus; to wit, the Cahier's prayer ("pour que revienne le temps de promission/et l'oiseau qui savait mon nom"), or, in Corps perdu, "Dit d'errance" ("Par le soleil d'un nid coiffé/où phénix meurt et renait." By threading the fairly constant images of sacrificial dismemberment and/or beheading throughout Césaire's poetry, one may discern the patterns of sadistic torture that make up a universe where apocalyptic, yet primeval, beasts roam at will; a fusion of the before-time and the after-time characteristic of myth. It does not take great acumen to read the political referent in the myth, such descriptions also matching standard practices of slave torture. By connecting them to birds, one arrives at something more.

Vous connaissez le conte

"Beau sang giclé" is built on a famous folk subtext, but one probably undecipherable without some help for the non-Caribbean. The poem illustrates the story of Yé, who shot the sacred bird in order to feed his starving family: here, too, the political signifier keeps floating up to the surface on the mythical signified. Tropiques considered the AfroCaribbean folk tradition an integral element of political resistance and made little mystery of it, a fact which eventually led to its being banned:

Un tambour. Le grand rire du Vaudou descend des mornes. Combien, au cours des siècles, de révoltes ainsi surgies! Que de victoires éphemères! Mais aussi, quelles défaites! Quelles répressions! Mains coupées, corps écartelés, gibets, voila ce qui peuple les allées de l'histoire coloniale. Et rien de tout cela n'aurait passé dans le folklore? Vous connaissez le conte de Colibri.

Césaire (and Menil) obligingly provide the folk connection between the story of Yé and "Conte Colibri." In a multiplicity of crisscrossing references, firmly connected by the central image of a beheading, the story of Yé spills into the tale of Colibri. The drum and the drum-bird stand for the primal Maroon, Caliban's last avatar. An obvious reference to the maroon's mode of communication, the drum functions both as an ontological metaphor (for instance, the vaudou ceremony in Christophe III, 7), and the poem as sample of the counter-poetics of "marronnage"; what Césaire wittily defined for Depestre in their famous friendly quarrel, "Réponse à Depestre, poète haïtien," as a symbolic system where nothing is what it seems.

Dismemberment connects the poem to Les Chiens. It also connects the tale of Colibri to that of Yé's sacred bird:

     Beau sang giclé
     tête trophée membres lacérés
     dard assassin beau sang giclé
     ramages perdus rivages ravis …
                     ô assassin attardé
     l'oiseau aux plumes jadis plus belles que le passé exige le compte de ses plumes dispersées.

On one level, the poem can be read as a riddle on the fact of colonization, predicting a successful revolt, if not revolution. The "standing nigger-scum" ("elle est debout la négraille") force the defeated colonizer, once triumphant trophy hunter, now defeated murderer, to acknowledge its dignity ("exige le compte de ses plumes dispersées"). On another level, Yé who would feed his children the body of the fallen god is replaying both those West African rituals of which Frazer and Freud made so much; and which, in their Mediterranean transformations, René Girard sees as the non-western foundations of our western beliefs—Christ's ritual sacrifice and "flesh-and-blood" communion embracing both. Willingly shedding his own "communial blood," the Rebel of Les Chiens is, among others, a (counter)version of Christ. On yet another level, the poem stages an allegorical replay of the Rebel's betrayal by his own people. If the ignorant trophy hunter may be compared to the ignorant betrayers of the oratorio, he has nonetheless committed a sacreligious crime for which he must atone; as, by inference, must they. The criticism of the betrayal is here muted, since Yé (metonym for the poorest "nigger-scum") was trying to feed his children (take charge of the people and so continue the Rebel's task). By forcing them to reconstitute its body, the sacred bird of Negritude is leading them to the selfawareness ("ever more beautiful than before") that precedes collective action. As usual with Césaire, any close-reading eventually proceeds in "expanding rings," to use Rilke's metaphor.

For it is the image of Afro-Caribbean consciousness that brings into the poem's semantic interplay its twin folktale, that of Colibri—not so coincidentally, the other Hearn selection reproduced by Césaire and Menil. "Conte colibri" is the story of the hummingbird who fights a succession of monsters sent by a jealous god to steal the bird's magic drum. When the last monster, Poisson-Armé, presents himself, a badly-wounded Colibri, "spurting blood," knows that he must die but gallantly accepts the challenge:

—Mon dernier combat, dit Colibri qui tomba mort.

Pouesson-Armé, en toute hate, ramassa un grand coutelas qui traînait par là, coupe la tête de Colibri, la mit sous la pierre de taille dans la cour de la maison. Alors, seulement, il prit le tambour l'emporta.

In "Beau sang giclé, the "trophy head" is the clue that Colibri and the sacred bird of the past are one. Like Osiris's and Orpheus's, Cohort's head must be severed after death to prevent reincarnation. But, as with Orpheus, the head buried in the house yard is immortal, drawing a perpetual potential reincarnation from Caribbean soil/self. The connection between the chtonic forces of the soil and the Rebel (who, sprawled on the ground, anoints his nape with crumbling earth), was made rather forcefully in the 1946 version of Les Chiens. Colibri may well be the Rebel's totem. We already know that it is Christophe's.

As Pestre d'Almeida has shown, parts of the pre-Columbian myth of the hummingbird correspond to aspects of the Ancient Phoenix as well as to the Aztec Hummingbird God; the latter represented the rising sun, the dawning of a new age—a particularly potent cluster in Césaire. In this overlapping of cultural traditions, Césaire has found the perfect syncretic Ancestor; and, as such, the model of the authentic Afro-Caribbean self: the eternal "bird of no surrender."

With its incredibly fast beating heart, the hummingbird is a living drum. And we remember that it is the sacred drum that Poisson-Armé stole from Colibri: in other words, along with his life, that which defined him, his self. Pushing the metaphor, one might also add, his music, his poetry, his language; or, in biblical terms, his Word. The tale of Colibri is that of an ontological murder. But it enfolds a possible rebirth. For, if Colibri did not, in the folktale, come back to life, Yé's magic bird did.

Colibri was a frame of reference in the Cesairean corpus every time the questions of ontological and historical authenticity were raised. With moi, laminaire …, whose lower capped title is significant (all poems have lower capped titles as well), Césaire operates a bitter eviscerating:

     rien de tout cela n'a la force d'aller bien loin essoufflés
     ce vent nos oiseaux tombant et retombant
     alourdis par le surcroît de cendres da volcans

The once fertile, revolution-nurturing landscape is now dry ashes. We can measure the depth of despair in this image of sterility and death for a man who once described himself as volcanic, "homme peleen," and praised the other pelean giant of Caribbean history, Louis Delgres who blew himself to bits on Matouba and who, like Césaire, was born on Basse-Terre. We have passed from the gigantic realm of an all embracing, all-creating, explosive imagination birthing an all-expanding consciousness (the sorcerer's incantations that create a new world and a new people) to a contracting, almost imploding universe. The poetic self, a figure of mythical resilience, once Phoenix-like in its stubborn Colibri-courage, is now confronting historical contingency, "limping," Oedipus-like, between self-knowledge and its reverse, self doubt: "Ainsi va toute vie. Ainsi va ce livre, entre soleil et ombre, entre montagne et mangrove, entre chien et loup, claudiquant et binaire." A shrunken giant wonders about his choice of ancestors: "j'ai tiré au sort mes ancétres" ("ibisanubis"). The Ancient myths that so empowered him are now inoperative, reduced to arbitrary choices.

The heroic self has been reduced to a non-self, a modest life form that cannot stand separate from its marine environment for long, but sometimes manages self-consciousness, to "inhabit one of my wounds one minute at a time":

     j'habite de temps en temps une de mes plaies
     chaque minute je change d'appartement
     et toute paix m'effraie
             ayant creché volcan mes entrailles d'eau vive
             je reste avec mes pains de mots et mes minerais secrets
     j'habite donc une vaste pensée
                              ("calendrier lagunaire")

The fragmented, tentative consciousness is all too aware of its vulnerability, yet tenaciously clinging to the hope of resurgence with a serenity born of experience at the end of a long life ("algues"):

     la re lance
          se fait
             algue laminaire

This is Colibri's last incarnation: limited and modest in its acts yet keeping the epic dream alive ("une vaste pensée"). In its last reincarnation, Césaire-Colibri acknowledges that his mission has not changed, and so finally answers the "admirable question," but this time without irony:

     il n'est pas question de livrer le monde aux
     assassins d'aube …
     une nouvelle bonte ne cesse de croître à l'horizon
                                    ("nouvelle bonte")

Somehow, this last incarnation is infinitely more touching, in its limitations, and stubborn hope, than the wildest of the Rebel's visions. Until we remember that, in Césaire's syncretic pantheon, Oedipus enfolds the smiling, limping figure of Legba-Eshu, cunning messenger of the gods, the liminal deity who never gave up. And so, infinitely refracted, the iconic figure of Colibri.

Laurence M. Porter (essay date Summer 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6584

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 Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, opposing racism by inspiring pride in his people. His journal, Tropiques, published a series of articles intended to put the Martinicans in touch with their own land, history, and traditions. But his political resolve appears to have been crystallized in 1944 by his seven-month visit to Haiti, symbol and illustration of the possibility for black autonomy in the Caribbean. He soon was elected mayor of Martinique's principal city, Fort-de-France, and deputy to the French National Assembly in 1945. There he led the commission that drafted the bill of March 19, 1946, establishing the Départements d'Outre-Mer (D.O.M.). He has been severely criticized for missing the opportunity to make Martinique independent. But such criticism seems unjust: at that time, Martinique was too weak, economically, to stand alone, owing to the shortages caused by the Allied blockade, and was stifled politically by the highly centralized French administration. Only twelve years later was France to allow autonomy in her former colonies in Africa. In addition, Césaire respected the request voted on February 6, 1946, by the governing body of those he represented, the Conseil générale de la Martinique, which resolved: "Nous voulons l'assimilation, parce qu'elle est l'aboutissement de toute notre formation, trois fois séculaire." Within these limitations, Césaire had tried unsuccessfully to reserve special powers for the D.O.M. His vocal support of anticolonialism, as a worldwide movement, was prepared by the independence movements in Madagascar and in Vietnam in the late 1940s, and provoked by Octave Mannoni's Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization. Mannoni's psychoanalytical speculations attempted to negate the nationalistic implications of the 1947 uprising and its bloody suppression in the then French colony of Madagascar. Mannoni diagnosed the independence movement as the ambivalent symptom of the black person's "dependency complex," interacting with the white European colonizer's sublimated Oedipal desire for mastery, in rivalry with the symbolic father. That desire, Mannoni argued, led the European to quit country and family in quest of a freedom and autonomy that the Malagasy themselves—so Mannoni claimed—could neither imagine nor desire. To rule and dominate the latter was the Westerner's burden, as symbolic father, and by punishing the rebels, he would reassure them of the stability of his restraining power.

Césaire retorted promptly with his Discours sur le colonialisme, which reflects his emerging doubts about the efficacy of European Marxism for helping the Third World achieve eventual independence. At the same time that he refuted Mannoni's paternalistic views, he also rejected the Eurocentric left-wing views that would keep the Third World striving for autonomy, dependent on the guidance of Marxist thought. To redefine Caribbean experience in Caribbean terms, he founded his own socialist Progressive Party in 1958. From 1961 onward, he consistently advocated an autonomous federation of the D.O.M. in the Antilles and in Guyane. Throughout the 1960s, he attempted to prepare his constituents psychologically for self-rule and eventual nationhood through both political and cultural action.

As a form of cultural action, he wrote three plays that presented accessible, inspirational models of blacks' struggles for independence. The international context of the plays aimed to remind the Martinicans that morally, at least, they were not alone, and that their own striving for justice could in turn inspire others. Theater made Césaire's statements accessible to even the illiterate.

The last of these plays, Une Tempête (1969), parodies Shakespeare's original, satirizing the jarring contrast between the theory and practice of post-Shakespearean colonialism, between benevolent words and ready threats and uses of violence. It remains the only full-scale dramatic adaptation, and constitutes a detailed condemnation of imperialism and racism, rivaled in Césaire's career only by his masterpiece, the Cahier. Often studied, Césaire's parody deserves more attention than it has yet received, to explain the two added framing scenes, the landscape, and above all, the changes that transform Shakespeare's dreamlike drama into a vehicle for a satire of the Eurocentric, colonial imperialism articulated only after Shakespeare's time. Césaire's choice of a prestigious model also suggests that no corner of white culture should be immune to skeptical scrutiny. Césaire's intent is not to attack Shakespeare as a racist. He is protesting the derogatory stereotypes of "natives" that The Tempest's portrayal of a bestial Caliban clearly can be exploited to support—even though Caliban's mother herself came from Europe, so that he is only a second-generation settler. The Tempest itself implicitly evaluates the moral worth of each character according to the depth of his or her capacity to recognize Caliban as akin to the human.

The initial suggestion to adapt The Tempest came from Jean-Marie Serreau, the director of Césaire's two previously staged plays. In responding, Césaire insisted on a free hand and systematically transformed the original into a study of the master/slave relationship that generates "a critical reflection on the value system of western humanism." Here we must distinguish among three, not between only two viewpoints. Although Shakespeare clearly is influenced by Montaigne and aware of Indians, to whom he refers in his text, the initial shipwreck does occur in the Mediterranean, on a voyage from Tunis back to Europe. In his depiction of Caliban, Shakespeare himself primarily followed the medieval Wild Man topos, whose topographical reference, if any, would be Europe, not the Americas: what if the other were not civilized, if he lacked his own language (except, perhaps, in an incoherent, degenerate form) and literacy? The second viewpoint, against which Césaire contends, is the post-Shakespearean, racist, colonialist viewpoint, arguing that the other is not civilized. And the third viewpoint, Césaire's anti-colonialist one, explains that it is the Europeans' greed or ignorance, or both, which prevent them from recognizing that the other is in fact civilized, although different.

For Césaire's purposes, that Shakespeare's original version locates the action on an exotic island makes it well suited for adaptation as a political allegory of the Antilles. The marooned Prospero, the chief racist from Césaire's point of view, must have recalled to him the thousands of French sailors stranded in the Antilles for many months after the Nazi invasion of France. The islanders had to host and support these foreigners—many were ignorant and crudely prejudiced—while frequently receiving little but hostility and contempt in return.

Shakespeare's essentialist views, not necessarily racist themselves, can readily be used by racists concerned with preserving the status quo. In The Tempest Caliban's revolt is only a secondary disturbance of the social nexus, destined to be set right as are all such disturbances in Shakespeare's plays. The cast of characters foretells the outcome: Prospero's evil brother is styled "the usurping Duke of Milan," and Prospero himself, "the right Duke of Milan." That the first words of the text are "The Scene, an uninhabited Island," underscores that Caliban and Ariel are not human to Shakespeare (Ariel himself acknowledges as much with his "were I human") and therefore possess no rights beyond those granted through the indulgence of Prospero. All of Shakespeare's story is told from Prospero's viewpoint—or more accurately, when other human characters' perceptions are directly presented, they are enchanted by love or magic, or deceived in the belief that they arc the sole masters of their destiny.

Prospero assumes that because he has "created" Caliban as a civilized being, Caliban himself cannot be creative. Prospero's exclusive possession of "magic" (reaffirmed in Shakespeare, ultimately exposed as delusional in Césaire) betokens his (claim to a) monopoly on creativity. If Caliban defies him, it can only be as a fallen creature, a Galatea gone wrong.

To date, comparisons of Césaire and Shakespeare have limited themselves to content, neglecting the plays' overall form. By writing entirely in prose, Césaire removes the aestheticizing distraction of verse: he makes his text entirely businesslike, to function as a denunciation of colonialism. He thus also removes the hierarchical distinction, in Shakespeare, between those who speak in prose and those who speak in verse: the plebeian sailors, Stephano, and Trinculo, as opposed to the nobles. Erasing this invidious distinction, Césaire suggests that all have the same rights. In contrast, Shakespeare's and Césaire's Prosperos share the belief that Caliban is like an animal, has no language other than what Prospero taught him, and therefore, no valid viewpoint of his own. That Shakespeare's Ariel and Caliban often speak in verse, however, ennobles them linguistically and problematizes Prospero's elitist viewpoint.

The superficial significance of Césaire's leveling of language is that Prospero's claims to absolute superiority, in his confrontations with Caliban, are undercut by presenting the discourse of both on roughly the same level of elegance. The deeper implications, suggested by Caliban's occasional demonstrations of aesthetic and linguistic sensibilities in Shakespeare, are that, applied to drama, parody tends to flatten the text, whereas in lyric and narrative, it tends to enrich it. I mean that oppositional parody (German Gegengesang as distinguished from Beigesang) functions through a rhetoric that generates an intertextuality (as an awareness in the hearer or reader) calling into question the self-sufficient, absolute status of an original, either by confronting it with another, external text, or by exposing its own inner contradictions. Thus parody complicates. But drama, a medley of conflicting voices, forms a sort of Sängerkrieg in which each voice seeks to impose itself. To make its point, parody simplifies drama; it reduces these voices to two, in sharp contrast: here, racist authoritarianism versus liberationist protest. Thus Césaire, for example, eliminates the serene, loving side of Prospero, and the inquisitive, role-playing, sexually aware Miranda. He passes over the moment when Miranda is less accepting of Caliban than is Prospero, when she expresses great reluctance even to see him: "Tis a villain, sir, / I do not love to look on," an exclamation that clearly prepares her "Abhorred slave" speech so often misattributed to Prospero, who at least wishes to tolerate Caliban's presence if only to exploit him. Césaire eliminates Miranda altogether from this confrontation with Caliban, so as to focus the racist voice in Prospero.

Both authors frame the play to emphasize its artificiality, but the respective effects are quite different. Shakespeare's frame glorifies Prospero: Césaire's diminishes him. The epilogue, a convention in Elizabethan plays though not in Shakespeare's, usually asks the indulgence and applause of the audience, in a deferred captatio benevolentiae. Shakespeare adopts it, for once, in this play, identifying himself with Prospero in a way that has been prepared throughout the final act. Thus he may be saying farewell to the magic of artistic creation and of the theater (after The Tempest, he was to write no more than, at most, Henry VIII and a few collaborations).

Césaire, in contrast, puts his framing scene at the beginning. In it an added character, "Le Meneur du Jeu," urges everyone to don a mask corresponding to his or her chosen role. Only half a page long, this scene is fraught with suggestions. Most obviously, it demystifies Prospero as the imperialist magician who stages most of the events at will. No longer is it he who is the chief master of illusion; no longer does the colonial usurper exercise an almost unquestioned authority close to that of the playwright himself. It is the "Meneur du jeu" who actually summons the tempest, implicitly identified as a Yoruba god, Shango, although Prospero later thinks he is summoning it. The failure of Césaire's Prospero in his attempts to function as "meneur du jeu" appears most blatantly at two later moments in the play. During the wedding and at the end, Prospero cannot orchestrate the spectacle of the assimilated savage (this oxymoronic phrase betrays the unconscious bad faith of the white man's condescension) becoming gratefully subject to the authority of his colonial master.

Moreover, after having overtly subtitled his play "Adaptation pour un théâtre nègre," Césaire simultaneously introduces the racial differences that reflect the Caribbean social hierarchy of the colonial era, by specifying that Caliban is black and Ariel mulatto, and denounces these differences as superficial by using masks. Likewise, Jean Genet, for example, had a few years earlier exposed the speciousness of sociopolitical hierarchies in his anticolonial play Les Paravants. Two generations ago, at the height of the Négritude movement, or one generation ago, at the height of the assertions of black pride, one might have seen in such a gesture the dangerous, self-deluding effort to deny the reality of race and to forswear one's heritage, in a manner attacked by Frantz Fanon in Peau noire, masques blancs. With the hindsight of a quarter century, however, Césaire's ostensible masking of his multiracial cast of characters seems surprisingly modern, reflecting as it does a position lucidly articulated by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: "'race' is a metaphor for something else and not an essence or a thing in itself, apart from its creation by an act of language … if we believe that races exist as things, as categories of being already 'there,' we cannot escape the danger of generalizing about observed differences between human beings as if these differences were consistent and determined, a priori … It is the penchant to generalize based upon essences perceived as biological which defines 'racism.'"

At the same time, Césaire's casting and costuming scene also militates against emotional identification with individual actors by members of the audience. Through the calculated artificiality of the masking, the spectators are distanced from the ensuing action, as they are in the epic theater of Bertholt Brecht, so that they will think rather than feel. Césaire seeks not catharsis, as an end in itself, but provocation and incitement to action.

Césaire then increases Caliban's stature by greatly reducing the two competing plots. In Shakespeare, the revenge plot is primary; the secondary plot, the idyll between Miranda and Ferdinand, then provides the occasion for a reconciliation; and Caliban serves mainly to enhance an atmosphere of fantasy and to glorify Prospero's clemency, which extends even to monsters. In Césaire, in contrast, it is Caliban's slave revolt, rather than the love story, that provides the principal motivation for the reconciliation: Prospero makes common cause with the other whites as natural allies who will protect him against Caliban in a racial conflict.

In its own terms—whereby Caliban has an allegorical, rather than a literal, referent—Shakespeare's play seems to imply that Utopia is impossible, and that "the notion of an ideal state is corrupt in itself." But from the historical perspective of 1969, the play could seem the harbinger of a vast imperialist expansion, anticipated even in Shakespeare's time by the first settlements in North America, the founding of the East India Company, and the development of the British navy. Then the supernatural traits of Shakespeare's Ariel and Caliban could appear a mere ruse for robbing the "natives" of humanity, so as to permit enslaving and torturing them with a clear conscience; and Prospero's magic could readily seem a metaphor for the mystifying rationalization of white superiority. For a traditional Shakespearean, Césaire's race-conscious reworking (his subtitle is "Adaptation pour un théâtre nègre") may well seem crudely reductive, if not wrong-headed: it exemplifies the bad manners and narrow focus of the protester. The offensive (in both senses of the word) mainspring of Césaire's parody is a metonymic reversal of cause and effect, whereby Shakespeare's diagnosis of political ills becomes their symptom.

Césaire's oppositional strategies include debunking the notion that the white colonizer is benevolent; exposing his hypocrisy through psychologizing; demystifying the myth of his superiority; and presenting the colonized person as an intellectual, social, and religious being with his own language, his own network of relationships, and his own beliefs and values. Regarding benevolence, among Césaire's whites, Gonzalo appears at first glance even more sympathetic than in Shakespeare. Césaire underlines the moral contrast, already prominent in the original, between the King's virtuous counselor and the other nobles. During the storm, in Césaire's version, Gonzalo remains calm while Antonio fears hell; Gonzalo advises seeking the eye of the hurricane to secure a brief respite to find harbor, while Antonio and Sebastian ignorantly deride him as a foolish old man. [Act 2, scene 2] gives him a much greater role than in Shakespeare. Césaire suggests he is superior to the other whites because he is more in touch with nature; yet even his attitude toward the isle, which he, like the other Europeans, sees as a potential colony, will be exposed as exploitative and self-centered. His interest in finding guano to use as fertilizer betrays the lowest common denominator of materialism. His reasoning, conforming to the fallacy "like causes, like effects" ("C'est clair: une terre merveilleuse ne peut porter que des êtres merveilleux"), unwittingly mocks both himself and Shakespeare. He does not seek conquest by force, but his very restraint is based on the condescending myth of the "noble savage," a form of admiration that attempts to relegate the other to an ornamental, peripheral role. He remarks: "si l'île est habitée, comme je le pense, et que nous la colonisons [note the self-confident, indicative mood—where French would more often use the subjunctive—in the second of two successive if-clauses], comme je le souhaite, il faudra se garder comme de la peste d'y apporter nos défauts, oui, ce que nous appelons la civilisation. Qu'ils restent ce qu'ils sont: des sauvages, de bons sauvages, libres, sans complexes ni complications. Quelque chose comme un réservoir d'éternelle jouvence où nous viendrions périodiquement rafraîchir nos âmes vieillies et citadines."

Gonzalo's opening advice to seek the eye of the storm, added by Césaire, corresponds symbolically to his aspirations, suggested later in both plays, to find an outside to power while remaining within human society. He wishes to enjoy domination without guilt, to evade the violence stirred up by inequality while continuing to benefit from it as a member of a privileged class. Shakespeare had overtly denounced this delusion (Gonzalo: … no sovereignty.—Sebastian: Yet he would be king on't.). However benevolent, any appropriation of the Noble Savage effectively erases the other, even via the blandness of uncritical admiration, in the very act of treating him or her as a protected species. Césaire underscores this point by ascribing to Gonzalo a comical failure to exorcise Caliban, when, after his abortive revolt, he proves unrepentant: the native who fails to recognize the white man's divinely ordained dominion must be possessed by the devil.

As for Prospero, at the conclusion of the Shakespearean play, he has provided moral enlightenment for those who wronged him (excepting the unrepentant Antonio), and a moral test for the man who will wed his daughter. Thus The Tempest falls into the tradition of "teaching through fear" with the aid of allegorical pageants, rituals, and visions. Patricia Merivale has brilliantly traced this tradition from Mozart's The Magic Flute through Hesse's Steppenwolf to John Fowles's The Magus (itself, one should add, inspired by Shakespeare). Through the internal reduplication of a traditional masque to celebrate Miranda and Ferdinand's betrothal, through an assembly of the classical deities simulated by captive spirits, Prospero prepares to reintegrate his former oppressors into a now harmonious society that includes them all, but excludes Ariel and Caliban. Having achieved this end, he has no more reason to remain on his island. Aside from a final contemptuous order, the last word of Shakespeare's Prospero regarding Caliban is "this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine." This statement has been ingeniously interpreted in many ways; for instance, as Prospero's acknowledgement of his own dark side. In context, however, it is a flat assertion of jurisdiction. Three conspirators have robbed Prospero, attempted to take his life, and usurp his kingdom; of these, Stephano and Trinculo are Alonso's to discipline as he sees fit—by saying as much, Prospero renounces supreme authority in the island and prepares to leave; while the surveillance and punishment of Caliban remains Prospero's responsibility. Now doubly inferior, through his condition and through his crime, Caliban begs for forgiveness ("grace") and does his part in restoring order by returning to his proper role as an obedient servant. As Shakespeare sees it, he is so radically inferior that his only reasonable course is to submit to Prospero's guidance and domination.

Césaire's Caliban, in contrast, rejects the false image that Prospero has imposed on him:

     Un sous-développé, comme tu dis,
     un sous-capable,
     voilà comment tu m'as obligé à me voir,
     et cette image, je la hais! Et elle est fausse!

When asked what he wants, he offers the simplest of self-assertive answers: to be rid of Prospero and to regain his island and his freedom. Illustrating Césaire's parodic technique of questioning the motives of the master, Caliban knows that Prospero will choose to remain before Prospero knows it himself, and in advance, defies him.

To support a status quo favorable to him, the colonialist will consciously or unconsciously adopt the philosophical position of Platonic realism or essentialism. This involves the concept of "race" (dark skin as an outward and visible sign of a presumed absolute intellectual and moral inferiority, based on biology); and the myth of a transcendent origin and destiny for the ruler (the divine right of kings, the Apostolic succession, Manifest Destiny, and the like) that justifies governing without the consent of the governed. The other becomes an empty sign whose only value is the value added through the civilizing mission of the conqueror. First, the blacks and Indians had no culture, the imperialist argument runs; then they had European culture, and upon the extent of their assimilation depended the justification of their claims to be treated as human. The lucid slave is a happy and appropriately grateful slave who endorses his or her oppression. Any resemblance between a "native's" preexisting culture and that of Europe was seen as a depraved, revolting, and fallen parody.

The lie of the civilizing mission has deceived Césaire's Prospero himself. He has become intoxicated (Caliban's term) with the exercise of an arbitrary power that would have been impossible in Europe. Nor can Prospero leave the island, as Caliban has come to understand, without admitting to himself that his work of colonization has been pointless and ineffectual; he has not won Caliban's love; he has not converted Caliban to his values; and the isle itself could function perfectly without him. By remaining, he leaves open his relationship with Caliban, and can thus avoid confronting his moral defeat. More fundamentally (Césaire has the Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic in mind, as we shall see), he has become enslaved to his slave, which is to say, dependent on him for his own sense of identity. This ultimate dependency emerges clearly in the final psychotic break in which his identity fuses with that of Caliban: "Toi et moi! Toi-Moi! Moi-Toi!" Caliban does not heed Prospero's desperate call.

In Césaire's play, the essence of Prospero's strategy for claiming cultural superiority is the rejection of reciprocity, a willful erasure of the other. He insists on always using his native language between them, while never bothering to learn a word of Caliban's tongue. He calls Caliban's use of his own language "impolite," and interprets his slave's articulate protests in Prospero's language as breakdowns of communication that justify brutality. (Even in Shakespeare, Prospero does not seem to notice that the unredeemable Caliban reforms as soon as he is no longer tortured and can envision the prospect of eventual freedom). For Prospero, only compliance counts as a proof of understanding: "Caliban, j'en ai assez! Attention! Si tu rouspétes, la trique! Et si tu lanternes, ou fais grève, ou sabotes, la trique! La trique, c'est le seul langage que tu comprennes; eh bien, tant pis pour toi, je te le parlerai haut et clair. Dépêche-toi!" In both Shakespeare's and Césaire's versions, Prospero insults and tortures his slave during their everyday interactions, not only to bolster his apparently shaky self-worth, but also to vent the excess rage that his conscience prevents him from venting on his European enemies. "The exchange of curses between Prospero and Caliban indicates that they have much in common. What Prospero hates and punishes in Caliban is the forbidden part of himself."

Against essentialist dogmas, Caliban, like other colonized persons, adopts the perspective of psychological relativism and represents the colonizer not as monolithic, but as split, at best, between benevolent protestations and tyrannical behavior. The colonized person considers this behavior in pragmatic terms. Whether the colonizer's protestations of benevolence are hypocritical or sincere, whether they depend on a conscious or unconscious bad faith, does not matter so long as they are exposed by the contrast between words and deeds, whenever "civilization," in practice, entails violence and murder. Similarly, the imposition of linguistic and cultural relativism on the conceptual map of the colonies, by oppositional discourse, means that the empty sign of the "native" is filled, thwarting the colonist's efforts to imagine a history starting with the present, and a "land without ghosts."

Regarding The Tempest, critics—and Shakespeareans in particular—could reject Caliban's psychologizing since it is both anachronistic and belated, as well as ignorant of the nature of fictional representation: it attributes an unconscious to Prospero as if he were a real person, thus reflecting an outmoded, nineteenth-century understanding of literary characters. Powerful, regarding Shakespeare's world as such, this objection can nevertheless alert us to the essence of Césaire's revisionist strategy. In Shakespeare, Prospero feels justified in his ill treatment of Caliban because the latter, as he openly admits, had tried to rape Miranda: "Thou didst prevent me. I had peopled else / This isle with Calibans." Césaire's Caliban, in contrast, diagnoses in Prospero the phenomenon of psychic projection: "Violer! violer! Dis-donc, vieux bouc, tu me prêtes tes idées libidineuses. Sache-le: je n'ai que faire de ta fille." Césaire, to be sure, preserves ambiguity regarding Caliban's desires by having Miranda characterize him as "l'affreux Caliban, lequel me poursuit de ses assiduités et hurle mon nom dans ses rêves idiots!" But overall, Césaire's satire depends on questioning Prospero's motives. That these motives are represented as unconscious, refutes Ariel's argument that the colonizer can change for the better, and that attentisme—opposition rather than resistance—is therefore justifies.

Both Shakespeare's slaves will choose compliance, Ariel from the beginning. Faced with an insurmountable power differential, he only begs for justice and does not protest that justice deferred is justice denied. Césaire depicts him similarly, but with a message that becomes pointed when Ariel argues with Caliban. From the Martinican leader's viewpoint, Ariel's subservient attitude is explained by the preferential treatment he has received from Prospero, and from the lure of eventual emancipation that Prospero has dangled before him. In short, with reference to slavery in the United States, Caliban is the "field Negro" and Ariel is the "house Negro," the white-collar slave (so to speak) who, unlike Caliban, need not do heavy work with his hands; with reference to the Caribbean, Ariel is the collaborationist mulatto class, privileged owing to his lighter skin.

Shakespeare's Caliban moves from attempted resistance to compliance, seeking "grace" from his master. His initial intransigence causes a typically Shakespearean disturbance of the social nexus followed by a restoration of equilibrium, when the naturally inferior subject submits to his rightful lord. Césaire, in contrast, decenters Prospero by endowing Caliban with greater lucidity than his master. To dramatize it, he adds to Shakespeare's version (where Caliban may not even be aware of Ariel's—or, for that matter, Ferdinand's existence) a formal debate scene between the two slaves to reinforce his portrait of them as rational adults, not children whose weak impulse control makes them require constant surveillance and discipline. Moreover, "splitting the ambivalence" of the oppressed person's reactions between Ariel and Caliban allows the creation of a character (Césaire's Caliban) who is entirely and inspiringly resolute in his defiance:


… a quoi t'ont servi ton obéissance, ta patience d'oncle Tom, et toute cette lèche? Tu le vois bien, l'homme devient chaque jour plus exigeant et plus despotique …


… Ni violence, ni soumission. Comprends-moi bien. C'est Prospero qu'il faut changer. Troubler sa sérénité jusqu'à ce qu'il reconnaisse enfin l'existence de sa propre injustice et qu'il y mette un terme …


… Que la conscience naisse à Prospero? Autant se mettre devant une pierre et attendre qu'il lui pousse des fleurs!

Césaire has inverted Shakespeare's terms so that it is the master, not the slave, who proves irredeemable (a condition underscored by Prospero's choosing to remain on Caliban's isle at the end). In the context of the 1960s, Caliban's temptation to violence recalls Frantz Fanon. Confronting Prospero, however, weapon in hand, Caliban will not strike unless his master defends himself, and Prospero taunts "Tu vois bien que tu n'es qu'un animal: tu ne sais pas tuer." As at the conclusion, Prospero equates civilization with murder. In contrast, Ariel's nonviolence recalls Martin Luther King. Together, these two figures reflect Césaire's ambivalence, determined by his own ambiguous, problematical role in founding the D.O.M. so as to preserve a French presence, like Prospero's at the end of the play. Césaire insisted that he saw himself in both Caliban and Ariel. Caliban himself eventually abjures violence in favor of separatism, which he—unlike Césaire, as a political leader—can achieve at once: Caliban's outcome may involve wish-fulfillment.

In Shakespeare, Caliban never appears on stage at the same time as either Ariel or Ferdinand (except when, in [act 3, scene 2], Ariel remains invisible and unrecognized). For Césaire to depict Caliban and Ariel's debate is to represent them as part of a social class, to deexoticize them, and to reinforce their added allegorical function as a symbol of oppressed peoples everywhere. Caliban's cries of "Uhuru!" ("Freedom!" in Swahili), "Freedom now!," and his allusion to Malcolm X, who dropped his white "slave name," ("Appelle-moi X…. Chaque fois que tu m'appeleras, ça me rappellera le fait fondamental, que tu m'as tout volé et jusqu'à mon identité! Uhuru!," in his first confrontation with Prospero, insert him into an international framework that, by implication, dignifies his revolt as a potential inspiration for others. The change of title from "The Tempest" to A Tempest similarly identifies Caliban's revolt as only one among many.

Shakespeare's play, like Césaire's, dramatizes all four possible courses of action for the slaves: collaboration, opposition, resistance, and separatism. But the added debate scene in Césaire makes these choices explicit, reversing Shakespeare's hierarchy of lucidity, in which Prospero alone possesses insight while the slaves have only instinct. It is Prospero's will to power, not the slaves' reactions, that Césaire wishes to characterize as unreasoning and instinctual.

From Caliban's viewpoint, Prospero's only superiority is technological; and his technology serves not to advance civilization but only to enable oppression. Faced with noncompliance, technology cannot negotiate or compromise, but only destroy. When Stephano and Trinculo complain of the mosquitoes, shortly after having joined Caliban in his assault on Prospero, Caliban explains: "C'est pas les moustiques. C'est un gaz qui vous pique le nez, la gorge, et donne des démangeaisons. Encore une invention de Prospero. Ça fait partie de son arsenal … anti-émeutes." The colonizer enjoys a purely material ascendancy; he lacks both moral authority and contact with nature, the ground of our existence. Nature is alien to him: in the psychotic break that concludes the play, Prospero fancies that the South American opossums gathering round his cave are leering at him, defying his civilizing mission. He reacts by firing his revolver wildly in all directions, killing all the inoffensive animals, with the cry "Je défendrai la civilisation!" Thus the naked brutality underlying colonialization is unmasked, and "civilization" imposed on others emerges again as only one more form of violence.

The Tempest, as far as we know, is one of only two plays whose plot was entirely invented by Shakespeare. When contrasted to the keen precision of the history plays, the fantasy setting of The Tempest can seem to imply that blacks have no history of their own because they have had no organized civilization, and that, therefore, they are not fully real. From there, it takes only a step to see a justification for benevolent despotism. Césaire, in a 1969 interview with L. Attoun, joins the opposing minority of those whom Berger called "the hard-nosed" as opposed to the "sentimental" interpreters of Prospero:

Je m'insurge lorsque l'on dit que c'est l'homme du pardon. Ce qui est essentiel chez lui, c'est la volonté de puissance. A mon avis, Próspero est l'homme de la raison froide, l'homme de la conquête, autrement dit, c'est un portrait de l'homme européen … campé en face du monde primitif colonisé.

Il ne faut dissimuler qu'en Europe, le monde de la raison conduit inévitablement à un totalitarisme.

En face, il y a Caliban, l'homme proche de la nature dont les communications avec elle ne sont pas encore interrompues, il participe à un monde merveilleux. Il est en même temps l'homme de la révolte, c'est un héros positif exactement comme chez Hegel: c'est l'esclave qui est le plus important, car c'est lui qui fait l'histoire.

In other words, the colonizer sees the slave as immanent, and himself, as transcendent. By invoking Hegel's Master-Slave dialectic, Césaire reverses these terms. It is not conquest but liberation that enables transcendence.

Shakespeare's Prospero, a superior person in Italy, whose only fault, perhaps, was a reluctance to exercise power there, returns home as soon as he is able. Césaire's Prospero, in contrast, is the white emigre who seeks in mastery over the colonized a compensation for his failure to compete successfully in his homeland. He can do to Caliban what Antonio had done to him. Therefore Prospero has no desire to return to Italy, even when the opportunity arises. As the only European in a "primitive" society, he can imagine himself as a culture hero orchestrating nature. With the supposed moral imperative of the white man's burden, Prospero's second major argument in defense of his "civilizing mission" is that there was nothing in the Third World before, that the "natives" are, culturally speaking, tabulae rasae. What the Négritude movement had tried to point out tactfully and indirectly, Césaire now affirms with vehemence, using Caliban as his spokesman: one person's "state of nature" is no more than another person's ignorance. Shakespeare had given Caliban no language until Mathilda taught him hers; you could even perversely claim that two signs of his superiority to many of the characters—his speaking in verse and his lyrical response to the magic of the isle—derive from his having had a lofty model, and that he himself deserves little credit for an independent linguistic sensibility. Césaire's Caliban, however, knows his mother's language, is fluent in French, and has at least shreds of English and Swahili.

Césaire's ending remains indeterminate, since Ariel has been freed but Caliban officially has not. Césaire thus implies that there may always be enslaved peoples somewhere in the world, but that they can preserve their dignity by continuing to fight for liberation. That Caliban can range untrammeled over the island at the conclusion, celebrating his autonomy, depends on Césaire's own magic. Unrealistically—in political terms—he eliminates from his version the acolytes through whom power is mediated (that is the mulattoes) throughout the colonial history of the Caribbean, and the commercial powers that presently keep the Third World in a state of economic dependency. Ariel and the Europeans (other than Prospero) simply depart. Then Césaire's Caliban has only to reject the myth of his inferiority for it to disappear. Thus he figures a mental liberation that, Césaire knows, must precede a political one.

Reflecting the awkward, embarrassing, and continuing presence of the French, Césaire's Prospero remains on the island, with his weapons and his "mission civilisatrice," and Caliban cannot drive him away. So Caliban remains involuntarily within the European orbit, but he is no longer of it. His master/slave symbiosis with Prospero now exists only in the latter's imagination. Indeed, Césaire suggests that French power will ultimately fade, when he has Prospero momentarily sense the vanity of power: "Tout cela passera un jour comme l'écume … Ma puissance a froid!" (one recalls that Caliban's major task in Shakespeare was to gather firewood). At the end of the play, Césaire's Caliban goes his own way, pursuing his own, unmediated projects, and the last words of the text are "La liberté!" The same words in the monster's comical, drunken, and deluded shout at the end of Shakespeare's [act 2, scene 2]—in the powerfully ironic context of absolute submission to a substitute, less worthy master—have been transformed by Césaire into the lucid affirmation of a newfound dignity.

How will this dignity be exercised, and how will it lead eventually to full independence? The one major character that Césaire added to the central play, the Yoruba trickster-god Eshu, suggests a gradualist approach in laying the groundwork for a new, black society, through the rediscovery of authentic, African cultural values. The white master, in Césaire's version, hopes to effect cultural genocide by erasing from the Brave New World of colonial empire all traces of the substrate of black civilization. Prospero has designed the betrothal ceremony for Miranda and Ferdinand to transmit his colonizer's values to the next generation, "leur inculquer [emphasis added] le spectacle de ce monde de demain: de raison, de beauté, d'harmonie, dont, à force de volonté, j'ai jeté le fondement." But as captive spirits enact Prospero's spectacle, they are interrupted by Eshu. Prospero's show has been ordered up, whereas Eshu's appearance is spontaneous. He bursts in, uninvited, with an obscene song that uncovers, beneath the ceremonial pomp, the realistic sexual dimension in marriage (one recalls how anxious Shakespeare's Prospero has been, before the wedding, to preserve Miranda's virginity) and more generally, the "democracy of the body," where all masters and slaves are equal. Eshu is a god who shows us that no humans are gods. He transforms a ritual affirming Prospero's power into a carnival that calls hierarchy into question.

From an autobiographical perspective, Prospero's show recalls the Eurocentric, classical education that Césaire received in Paris in the 30s. In contrast, Eshu represents an invigorating infusion of African and Caribbean cultural vitality from Jacques Roumain, Senghor, and others. Eshu is not just a clown: he represents the Yoruba religion from West Africa, which provided the major component of the syncretistic religions that, borrowing also from Catholicism, preserved black culture in the New World as voodoo (Haiti), santería (Cuba), and condomblé (Brazil). The irrepressible Eshu—like the Yoruba god of thunder, Shango, invoiced by Caliban's hymns—implies that the slaves of the black diaspora retain an authentic cultural heritage far richer than that imagined by Shakespeare.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 314


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 Tempest.

Hawkins, Hunt. "Aimé Césaire's Lesson about Decolonization in La Tragédie du Roi Christophe." CLA Journal XXX, No. 2 (December 1986): 144-53.

Examines Césaire's skepticism regarding decolonization and the actions of King Christophe as portrayed in The Tragedy of King Christophe.

Pallister, Janis L. "Return." In her Aimé Césaire, pp. 1-28. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Provides extended analysis of Return to My Native Land.

Smith, Robert P. "Aimé Césaire Playwright Portrays Patrice Lumumba Man of Africa." CLA Journal XIV, No. 4 (June 1971): 371-9.

Examines Césaire's portrayal of Patrice Lumumba in A Season in the Congo.

Smith, Robert P., and Robert J. Hudson. "Evoking Caliban: Césaire's Response to Shakespeare." CLA Journal 35, No. 4 (June 1992): 387-99.

Examines the Caliban character in Césaire's adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Wolitz, Seth L. "The Hero of Negritude in the Theater of Aimé Césaire." Kentucky Romance Quarterly 16 (1969): 195-208.

Discusses the ideological rhetoric and didactic function of heroic protagonists in Césaire's dramatic works.


Melsan, Annick Thebia. "The Liberating Power of Work." UNESCO Courier (May 1997): 4-7.

Césaire comments on the affective power of poetry and the necessity for mutual recognition among differing cultures.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Aimé Césaire Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Césaire, Aimé (Fernand)


Césaire, Aimé (Vol. 19)