“The ‘Césaire Effect,’ or How to Cultivate One’s Nation”

By Mireille Rosello. Research in African Literatures 32.4 (2001) 77-91. Emphasis mine (and subject to change).

When discursive rupture points explode on the cultural scene, due to the incandescent power of a thinker’s words as well as to a public’s ability to hear the call of a new political and poetic voice, the person who originally embodied the new cry soon disappears behind his or her notoriety. Like Marx, like Freud, Césaire hardly owns his words, his persona is public property, even his written work is tightly interwoven with that of his critics, commentators, imitators, opponents, and admirers: quotations from Le cahier d’un retour au pays natal, from La tragédie du roi Christophe have become a “terreau primordial” ‘primordial soil’ (Leiner) out of which grows an intricate proliferation of new and not so new interpretations, as well as a strident chorus of vociferous or moderate judgments and counterjudgments.

Like other commentators, I have to choose between various metaphors of continuation, inheritance, influence, posterity, and Jacqueline Leiner’s allusion to a fertile soil captures my imagination perhaps better than other models. Yet, at least two other paradigms are difficult to ignore: the idea of filiation and that of legacy. In some sense, we may think that it was inevitable for “Papa Césaire” to engender literary and political children. After all, did his poetic alter ego not once ask:

[. . .] 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. (Cahier 70)

However, I would like to avoid using Césaire’s work and Cesairian pre-existing mythologies as a vast repertoire of material that we could all use to justify and corroborate any coherent narrative about the fictional figure that we constantly re-invent for different purposes. It may be more fruitful to explore the contradictory meanings and values that our chosen metaphors of the poet help circulate like bees (another metaphor I am afraid) that carry pollen from flower to flower. Any complex image can sustain the complexity of reactions generated by Césaire’s complexities and the “filiation” paradigm is no exception: if Roger Toumson, the co-author of Aimé Césaire, le nègre inconsolé, resolutely and confidently claims to be “adepte respectueux d’une filiation idéologique, philosophique et littéraire” ‘a respectful follower of an ideological, philosophical, and literary legacy’ (Apologie 7),1 we are also familiar with the violent reactions triggered by Raphaël Confiant’s decidedly anti-Cesairian volume, Aimé Césaire ou une traversée paradoxale du siècle (1993). Some flew to the rescue, disgusted by the symbolic murder of the good black father and refusing to [End Page 77] see any continuity between this apparently personal attack and the declaration made by the “créolistes” in their 1989 Eloge de la créolité: “Nous sommes à jamais fils d’Aimé Césaire” (18) “We are forever Césaire’s sons (80).” Annie LeBrun spared no vitriolic prose to denounce Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphaël Confiant, and Jean Bernabé’s “malhonnêteté” and “terrorisme” (“Aimé Césaire” 18). Just as she had contemptuously dubbed the first generation of French feminists “neo-feminists,” she contemptuously relegated Césaire’s critics to the rank of “neo-créoles” (21), dismissing their ideas as a version of Parisian chic, a territory where Chamoiseau, Confiant, Bernabé (and even Edouard Glissant) operate in the apparently despicable company of Julia Kristeva and Michel Serres (21).2

Self-defense or oil on the fire, the targets of her wrath greeted her intrusion on the West Indian scene with less than complimentary remarks. In 1998, in an otherwise moderate and thoughtful article, Jean Bernabé packs LeBrun away in a laconic footnote while making it clear that he sees her as the archetypal example of ludicrous “césairolâtres, gardiens du temple appliqués, dans leur zèle intempestif et leur myopie intellectuelle, à agonir d’injures, de quolibets et de dénégations horrifiées les prétendus blasphémateurs” ‘Cesairolizers, guardians of the temple, who, in their misguided zeal and intellectual near-sightedness, insist on hurling insults, sarcastic remarks, and horrified denials at the alleged blasphemers’ (“Négritude césairienne” 57). Perhaps more importantly (for is it fair to allocate good points either for best polemic formula or for greater level of self-control and moderation?), he points out that the very notion of filiation is ambiguous and that “[l]a qualité de fils peut, il est vrai, s’assortir d’épithètes diverses, légitime, spirituel, loyal, rebelle, prodigue, dénaturé, bâtard et j’en passe” ‘it is true that different adjectives can qualify the son’s nature: a son can be legitimate, spiritual, loyal, rebellious, prodigal, bastard, unfit, and so on’ (55). After all, the faithfulness of loyal sons can explain some analysts’ unflinching support, admiration, and praises but rebelliousness, while it can be condemned as betrayal, can just as easily be forgiven as a case of disillusioned love, or even praised as a more genuine interpretation of Césaire’s love for freedom. 3

In other words, the metaphor of “sons” (since the gender-specific allusion to male offspring seems to dominate here) may be frustratingly capable of having the opposite yet unproductive effect or either fueling or defusing a controversy that may seem suspicious because of its grandiloquent excesses. Perhaps other models might encourage us to treat the so-far aborted debate as a valid intellectual or poetic point of departure.

It is not that I systematically object to metaphors of filiation but I always suspect that the implicit allusions to family trees imply that some (legitimate) heirs inherit while others are excluded from the legacy. And although I acknowledge that there is a strong desire for leadership and guidance in Césaire’s poems and plays, I cannot conceive of a definition of a political and lyric poetry that would dictate (successfully) its own future interpretations and appropriations. I cannot understand how the legacy of a poet could be limited, maimed, shrunk by the existence of any will. One of the poems of Moi, laminaire, “Transmission,” reads: [End Page 78]

Je hurlais
Vous n’avez pas le droit de laisser couper
le chemin de la transmission (148).

To be honest, I don’t know what the poem means exactly: and I have not given up on my earlier promise not to quote a supposedly monolithic Césaire just to confirm my own points. I am not sure that this sentence refers to the transmission of his work (as the deputy? as the Mayor of Fort de France?) and I am not excerpting these two lines as evidence that Césaire will not leave a will. But what the poem gives me is the vision of an “I” screaming in fear and anger, urging an anonymous “vous” to protect the undefined “transmission channel” threatened with rupture. What is being transmitted and how remains unclear. Transmission, however, is treated as a sacred duty. We normally think of wills as what ensures the existence of a transmission (of goods, or ideas). I suggest that poetic wills work the other way around: they interrupt legacies instead of preserving them. Poems deserve daring acts of re-appropriation, loyal as well blasphemous, accurate as well as inaccurate, thorough as well as superficial, academic as well as mercantile, or perhaps academically mercantile as well as disinterestedly commercial.

Consequently, the image of that chaotic inheritance may be better realized through metaphors of vegetal growth that reflect the complex relationship between the seed and the soil, the tree and the shady area it delimits and under which small plants grow in a mangrove-like environment: if Césaire’s overt ambition is to celebrate the poet and the politician’s metamorphosis into a “semeur d’idées” ‘sower of ideas,’ 4 “un homme d’ensemencement,” as he puts it in the Cahier (70) (“a man of germination,” Notebook 171), readers can anticipate that, between the sowing and the growing, much will take place that the poet cannot control: the image of the farmer (or of the mature tree producing seeds or fruit) is not a metaphor of straightforward filiation. Many elements must combine for a seed to grow, and we may imagine that the historical soil where a “people” is supposed to develop (the relationship with a more or less authoritarian Fifth Republic, the example of decolonizing African countries) will play a role at least as important as their own (or their leader’s) desire, will, and perception of their own destiny. It is the combination of the cultural context as well as the meaning of the poet’s words that create a context allowing or discouraging certain reappropriations, regardless of whether the man encourages them or not. And literary critics may not have the best tools at their disposal to quantify such delicate chemistry between the “terreau” and the “semeur.” It is hard to assert with any confidence whether Confiant’s book was the expression of many Martinicans’ muted doubts or whether his essay was mostly heard in European circles that were ready to welcome the excitement of eccentric dethronings. No exact science can remove all unpredictability from the mysterious interaction between a soil [End Page 79] and what it bears but it would be even riskier to pretend to analyze separately the three elements that compose this alchemy (Césaire’s words, his audience, the historical context where the reception occurs) or to ignore the constantly changing dialectic between the three elements: some may be empowered or disempowered by the legacy just like some plants will thrive in the shade of a huge tree but might find their ambition to emulate its greatness thwarted by the very protection it has granted them.

Admittedly, the image of a tall and powerful tree whose influence extends well beyond Martinique reflects the strength, perhaps the pride, of a leader who represented “his” people until 1993.5 For some, “le silence s’apparentera au vide laissé par la chute des sequoias ou par la béance des caldeiras éteintes. Mais la pensée est convoyeuse de pollen” ‘the ensuing silence will resemble the hole left by the fall of sequoias or the vacuum of extinct calderas. But the thought pollinates’ (Ponnamah 121),6 while others will choose to interpret the same silence as the disappearance of a “figuier maudit” ‘accursed fig tree’ 7 that monopolizes space and stifles future growth, but both the flattering and the critical vision treat Césaire as an undisputed master whose fecundity is acknowledged: as Confiant puts it, perhaps not so reluctantly, “Certes, comme dit le proverbe créole «Sé déyé pyémango ki chajé moun ka vréyé wôch (On ne lance des cailloux qu’aux manguiers chargés de fruits)»” ‘Of course, as the creole proverb puts it, we only throw stones to fruit-bearing mango trees’ (Aimé Césaire 297). Consequently, just as it is impossible to dissociate the poet and the politician, the Martinican and the “nègre,” the “cri,” and the deputy’s rhetoric, it may be that Césaire’s work now includes (or is included by) all the discourses that appropriate it, the words spawned by his own. Paradoxically then, even the idea of a discrepancy between contradictory aspects of his figure can be said to be part of the legacy. And one particular offshoot or branch shows no sign of being stifled by any “accursed fig tree”: that most vexing and recurring difficulty, the issue of whether it is possible to reconcile the poet and the politician, or rather, the perceived distance between the poet’s violence and his political moderation. That question seems to function like a Deleuzian rhizome, or perhaps like the aerial roots of the Mauritian fig tree that Depestre recently adopted as the metaphor of his multiple identity: the “banian” (banyan). 8 With the regularity of special issues and commemorations, the issue resurfaces like an indestructible phoenix: did Césaire sell out when he opted for “departmentalization” rather than independence in 1946, should he have followed Sekou Touré’s example in 1958, did he refuse to hear his people’s aspiration to independence in the early sixties and when the ARC claimed a series of terrorist attacks in 1983?

In 1992, Lilyan Kesteloot recognized that “[d]epuis les années 60, en Afrique et ailleurs, nous avons souvent entendu reprocher à Césaire le fait de produire une poésie d’une extrême violence et de pratiquer une politique différente, prudente, modérée” ‘since the ’60s, in Africa and elsewhere, Césaire has often been blamed for writing an extremely violent poetry while practicing a different moderate, and cautious politics’ (“Politique, poétique et quête mystique” 7). And her response is straightforward: [End Page 80] rather than denying the gap between the poetics and the politics, she accepts that the two activities are sometimes incompatible at least at the level of tactics: “Nous avons tenté, nous le faisons encore à l’occasion, d’expliquer que écrire et agir sont aussi des choses différentes et qu’il est classique qu’on réalise dans l’écriture (ou l’art en général) au niveau de l’imaginaire, ce que l’existence concrète vous empêche d’entreprendre ou de faire aboutir” ‘We have tried, and occasionally still try, to explain that writing and action are two different things and that writing (or art in general) typically allows people to achieve, at the level of the imaginary, what everyday life prevents you from starting or completing’ (7). In other words, Césaire’s career forces him to be an “homo duplex” (Toumson, “Jubilé” 18) and his role as a politician and poet is bound to appear as contradictory: an absence of ambiguities would have been problematic, probably a betrayal of both roles (Césaire adamantly refuses Aragon’s national poetry and he does not confuse his role with that of his tragic heroes). Kesteloot’s argument is perfectly logical but it is also true that it may not sound acceptable to those who continue to perceive this discrepancy as a form of betrayal because they object to the dialectical tension between visions and daily politics.9

I have to admit that I am not particularly eager to agree to separate the poet’s strategy from the politician’s tactics. But it is not because I see the politician’s seemingly unglamourous patience as an unavoidable compromise. Rather, it is because I want to qualify the word “violence” when applied to Césaire’s poetry: his literary work, it seems to me, cannot be reduced to a welcome form of “violence,” be it politically sublimated violence or a long-awaited “Pelean” eruption. It may be that the type of violence to which Césaire objects is absent from his political work and present, but only as one of the options, in the literary work that stages several scenarios. I would argue that Césaire’s work contains violence, but often as one of the two sides of a debate, where two theories, two philosophies are often defended by several characters. And the question is not whether or not Violence, in the abstract, is desirable but whose violence, what type of violence is desirable at which moment. If we take the example of La tragédie du roi Christophe, we can read the play as a demonstration that Christophe is a failure (and thus understand its “lesson” as a caution against violent decolonization) but we could also notice that the tragedy contains more than Christophe’s voice and that its polyphony can be interpreted as a mise en abyme of political discourse: the play represents the genre of political debate (just as political decisions can be ultimately be compared to the characters’ decisions). When Christophe receives a letter from his “noble ami Wilberforce,” he reads it out loud, so that the English abolitionist’s views are now framed by his own commentary: both voices coexist, albeit conflictually:

Mais, Wilberforce, vous ne m’apprenez rien et vous n’êtes pas le seul à raisonner ainsi: “On n’invente pas un arbre, on le plante! On ne lui extrait pas les fruits, on le laisse porter. Une nation n’est pas une création, mais un mûrissement, une lenteur, une année [End Page 81] par année, anneau par anneau.” Il en a de bonnes! Etre prudent! Semer, me dit-il, les graines de la civilisation. Malheureusement, ça pousse lentement, tonnerre! Laisser le temps au temps . . . Mais nous n’avons pas le temps d’attendre [. . .] (57-58)

Régine Latortue is right to point out that Christophe and Wilberforce’s disagreement rests on the choice of two different metaphorical systems and that there is an unresolved tension between the Englishman’s “organic tropes” (295) and Christophe’s images, which privilege what she calls “architecture” but might also be compared to the paradigms of filiation that Césaire’s legacy so often elicits: Christophe wishes to find “quelque chose grâce à quoi ce peuple de transplantés s’enracine, boutonne, s’épanouisse, lançant à la face du monde les parfums, les fruits de sa floraison” (23) “something that will enable this transplanted people to strike roots, to burgeon and flower, to fling the fruits and perfume of its flowering into the face of the world” (13), a vision, after all not so different from that of the Cahier‘s narrator who wants to see his negritude “libre enfin / de produire de son intimité close / la succulence des fruits” (Cahier 69), “to generate / free at last, from its intimate closeness / the succulence of fruit” (Notebook 71). But Christophe also seeks “quelque chose qui, au besoin par la force, l’oblige à naître à lui-même et à se dépasser lui-même” (23), “something which, to speak plainly, will oblige our people, by force if need be, to be born to itself” (13), to which Wilberforce objects.

What is crucial about this confrontation between two metaphorical constructions is that neither system is coherent enough to translate simply into a political platform and that whatever wisdom and model is proposed by the play comes from the confrontation not only between the two visions but also between the contradictory elements within each program. In Wilberforce’s letter, “Inventer, créer” (a nation) is opposed to “planter” (a tree), which presupposes time, patience, allowing a situation to ripen. But the doubling of the metaphor (inventer/planter un arbre vs créer/laisser mûrir une nation), which, rhetorically, is supposed to convince by means of a slightly modified repetition of the same argument, ends up adding contradictory elements to the thought.

First of all, it may not be contradictory to invent a nation and then to let it “bear its fruit” and I would argue that Césaire’s “cri nègre” might have been a performative invention of a people that was then followed by [End Page 82] patience. As for the opposition between “planting a tree” and “inventing a tree,” it may be obvious that the latter does not sound right mostly because the familiar set phrase is “to plant a tree”; but if the conjunction of the name “tree” and of the verb “plant” seems correct (the “right” choice), the original analogy is not that self-evident: Wilberforce does not demonstrate in which way a nation is a tree. Conversely, the idea of “inventing” a nation may not be so preposterous after all: every nation could be seen as the result of one or several performative speech acts that bring it into existence by naming it even if the act of naming is bound to be the locus of violent struggles: during the War of Algeria, one of the difficulties was to make the word “independence” even conceptually acceptable by the people as well as by international governments. 10

On the other hand, even if Christophe is right that his country must be forced to come into existence, this original act of creation may not justify subsequent moments where he will substitute his own will to that of the community once that community has agreed to be invented by a founding “cry.” Christophe’s unforgivable violence is therefore not to be confused with the “violence” of the original call. In other words, it is possible to ally “lent mûrissement” ‘slow ripening’ and “inventer un arbre” ‘invention of a tree’ even if the metaphor must be taken further than its own analogical commonsense.

Césaire’s paradoxical position is that he must first speak for a people that does not exist and then listen to what that people that he has contributed to creating wants him to say as his representative. At first, he speaks in order to transform the “foule bavarde et muette” ‘chattering and mute’ (Cahier/Notebook 34-35) into a people whose newly acquired voice will then need a representative. The first peformative “cry” is an act of dissidence that was not the result of a mandate; and that original word paradoxically invents the people that will force the representative to disappear behind its collective will, even if the people’s will no longer corresponds to the man’s aspirations. I would argue that the gap between Cahier and Moi, laminaire keeps the trace of this resignation, not between two roles, but between two moments of the same role of “awakener” who then respects the will of the creature he has awakened. Kesteloot writes: “Le député maire sera [. . .] ce que les Antillais attendaient de lui. Eux qui ne voulaient ni guerre ni cataclysmes mais plus de villes, plus de confort, plus de consommateurs, il sera leur maire, leur bon père, leur papa Césaire” ‘The mayor will be what the Martinicans wanted him to be. They did not want war or cataclysms, they wanted more cities, more comfort, more consumers. He will be their mayor, their good father, their papa Césaire’ (“La quête d’un poète” 80). Césaire’s opponents will of course retort that it is a bit facile to assume that this is really what “les Antillais” wanted. But then again, who is to say that the voice of a community is ever perceptible even by those who seek to defend their interests? Once invented, the people of “negritude” may have had better ways of expressing itself than “bavardage” (powerless gossip) but even the most acceptable form of democratic decision, the election of one deputy rather than of another, simplifies the chorus of multiple opinions and reduces it to one of the pre-packaged options [End Page 83] offered by electoral lists. Who is to say what “the people” really thinks of Césaire? Those of us who have access to print can agree or disagree, celebrate or condemn, regret one step and claim another, but the principle of representation opens an infinite gap that no single voice can ever hope to bridge completely.

Sometimes, political dissension finds extremely devious or at least indirect ways to reach an audience, and some critiques are completely separate from recognizable aspects of the deputy’s or of the writer’s work; to take an extreme example, Daniel Delas points out that in a recent trilogy of best-sellers authored by Marie Jeanne de Jahan, the author’s ideological stance emerges through apparently trivial remarks: “Décrire Césaire comme ‘un petit homme au crane ovoïde, le nez chaussé de grosses lunettes’ n’est pas politiquement engagé mais ridiculise le leader noir” ‘It is not a political statement to describe Césaire as a “little man with an oval head and large glasses on his nose,” but it ridicules the black leader’ (“Histoires de békés” 125). 11 Depending on whether the reader is a metropolitan who has never read Césaire, or an African who knows Le cahier by heart, or a Martinican who voted for Césaire all her life, such “allusions apparemment anodines” or ‘apparently trivial remarks’ (125) will have incalculable consequences.

The portrait is malicious and petty, but easy to dismiss as irrelevant; consider, on the other hand, a much more generous yet devastating passage that presents itself as the voice of the “petit peuple” (a voice constantly filtered by “marqueurs de parole” ‘word markers’ who honestly and more or less successfully try to take stock of the community’s reaction). In Texaco, Chamoiseau talks about “l’effet Césaire” to describe the unquantifiable results of Césaire’s physical presence in the middle of the shantytown that inhabitants and authorities struggle to appropriate:

Sa présence était impressionnante, non pas sa voix qu’il n’élevait pas, ni ses gestes très calmes, mais sa présence: elle comblait les esprits des légendes qui couraient sur lui. C’était papa-Césaire, notre revanche vivante sur les békés et gros-mulâtres. Lui, que je n’avais même pas osé solliciter dans mes pires désespoirs . . . Et puis, il repartit, après avoir serré quelques mains, dont celles de Marie-Clémence. Je ne sais pas pourquoi, mais quand son image me revient dans la tête, j’ai toujours le sentiment d’une solitude sans fin. D’après Ti-Cirique, c’est le tribut que doivent payer au monde les poètes dont les peuples restent à naître. (398; emphasis added)

[End Page 84]

Remarkably, the congratulatory and seemingly friendly portrait praises the politician’s concern for the poor people whose houses are being destroyed but the passage finally annihilates, with one particularly harsh remark, the most important claim that the poet could have made, that of having helped his people come into existence: Césaire’s people “reste à naître,” the performative invention of a nation is still to come.

Most critics, however, tend to accept the founding “cri nègre” as a successful moment of awakening which enabled the beginning of a different type of communication. Delas notes that “[d]ans tous les moments les plus exaltés, le Cahier abonde en interjections, maintes fois répétées, qui sont autant de variantes du grand cri nègre: voum rooh oh, Eia! Hurrah! Et qui comme autant de moyens quasi mécaniques pour libérer et lancer la voix, pour donner une bouche à ceux qui n’en ont pas” ‘in all the most passionate moments, the Notebook is rich in interjections repeated many times and they are all variations on the great black cry: voum rooh oh, Eia! They are quasi-mechanical means to free and project the voice, to give a mouth to those who do not have one’ (Aimé Césaire 73). A scream that seeks to awaken others does not have to be rational and it is necessarily violent. But once the phatic function of the call has been established, is the poet condemned either to repetition or to a less spectacular form of expression? Is a cry necessarily unique and unrepeatable?

In an article on “Le meurtre du père nègre dans l’oeuvre d’Aimé Césaire,” Guillaume Suréna tells his readers that Glissant once said “le cri césairien ne sert plus” ‘the Cesairian cry has become irrelevant’ (359). Interestingly, that decisive dismissal is another form of successful cry, a sort of glistening upshot that we notice through the complicated fabric of the mangrove of interpretations. Tenuously linked to a powerful name, quoted and repeated, the sentence loses no strength from the fact that the critic does not securely attach it to an original text or context. A reference credits Delas who is said to have “cited” the striking formula in his Aimé Césaire. But even if we trace the sentence back to Delas’s book (157), we do not find the origin of the sentence and Glissant’s judgment remains out of context. This is all the more remarkable as the statement is both clever and highly problematic in this ambiguity. I wonder, for example about the relationship between the adjective “Cesairian” and the noun “cry”: does Glissant mean that the whole of Césaire’s work is a form of cry, a “cri Césairien,” and that the Cahier, the plays and the speeches have outlived their effectiveness? Or does he mean that when Césaire, nowadays, chooses “le cri” as a form of expression, that particular rhetoric cannot be useful? In other words, is any cry useless today (and why?) or is it that Césaire’s cry, once heard, is now irrelevant? And, supreme ambiguity of Glissant’s formula: the “ne sert plus” is not qualified. We don’t know who has no use for “le cri.” Which means that I no longer know if Glissant is actually complimenting Césaire on reaching that moment when he has made his own cry redundant or if he considers that the cry has failed to awaken the people.

In the end, then, the most unreconcilable opposition may not be between the poet and the politician but between those who believe that the word can be a “miraculous weapon” and those who adopt a different [End Page 85] attitude to language. For Césaire, the belief in the power of the word is almost a form of faith, an original creed: in “Poetry and Knowledge,” he writes: “«In the beginning was the word . . .» Never did a man believe it more powerfully than the poet [. . .] it is appropriate to speak of poetic violence, poetic aggressiveness, of poetic instability. In this climate of flame and fury that is the climate of poetry, money has no currency, courts pass no judgments, judges do not convict, juries do not acquit. Only the firing quads still know how to ply their trade” ( xlix and l).

Faith explains the slippage between what the “poet” believes and what we are told poetry “does” (as if here, the “I” were describing reality). We do not have to accept this description of the “climate of poetry” but this passage is a formidable definition of what Césaire wants the word to mean. The word is not only an instrument of knowing but also an act of resistance against the symbols of power: poetry on the same footing as other institutions that use the word to govern.

If we do manage to convince ourselves that the poetic word is capable of creating a specific type of environment where others’ words are empowered or defused, then the familiar opposition between Césaire’s poetry and political speeches starts looking like a moot point. Is it after all that important to agree on which part of the work has specifically literary value since Césaire’s own definition of the “word” confirm what literary theory has already taught us: that criteria used to canonize and decanonize certain texts are political. Delas notices, for example, that the speeches made by the deputy at the National Assembly have not been included in the Complete Works published by Desormeaux. Wondering why, he asks: “Les innombrables discours politiques que Césaire va prononcer désormais ont-ils tous valeur littéraire? A l’évidence non; mais au nom de quoi retenir ceci et rejeter celui-là? Sont-ce les grands événements qui font les grands discours? Sans doute mais les grands événements ne sont pas les mêmes pour tous” ‘From now on, Césaire will deliver innumerable political speeches. Do they all have a literary value? Of course not. But according to what criterion do we keep one and reject another? Do great events make great speeches? Probably, but great events are not the same for everyone’ (Aimé Césaire 77). Not to mention that we have entered an era where those who have power over words (the media for example) determine whether events exist or not. Quotations from Césaire’s poems could be inserted into passionate political speeches, with their frequent use of rhetorical questions, pronouncements and straightforward declarations. But some poems are also like speeches or conversations. The open letter to René Depestre, suspected of letting Aragon influence him, is a poem but also a sometimes colloquial series of questions and advice: “Est-il vrai que tu doutes de la forêt natale?” (“Le verbe marronner” 368) (“is it true that you mistrust the native forest?” 369). Other formulas are so powerfully memorable that they blur the distinction between slogans and poetical visionary formulas; confronted with a French government that encouraged emigration to the métropole in the sixties and seventies, Césaire protested against what he dubbed “génocide par substitution” ‘genocide through substitution.’ 12 Just as Césaire wanted, in the Cahier, to find “des mots de sang frais” (56) [End Page 86] “words of fresh blood” (57), perhaps, coining “génocide par substitution” is the invention of a “mot d’ordre de sang frais” ‘a slogan of fresh blood.’ (Worthy of finding its place in a poem, the original formula transcends the distinction between political analysis and metaphorical insight: Césaire’s unique talent may be to know how to deconstruct the particularly irreducible opposition between slogans and poetry, between freedom and what Annie LeBrun dismisses as mere “mots d’ordre” ‘marching orders’ (“Aimé Césaire” 17). 13 Perhaps, coining “génocide par substitution” is the invention of a “mot d’ordre de sang frais.”

We may not, after all, have to choose between the legacy left by Frantz Fanon and the lessons offered by Aimé Césaire, although it is tempting to see each of the two figures as two incompatible strategies: one reading of their itinerary would obviously interpret them as opposite poles. Fanon was on the side of violence, Césaire always refused it or rather, knew that violence had a price or even that violence was the prize to pay for certain decisions. Like all other binary readings, opposing a violent Fanon and a nonviolent Césaire both tells a truth and misses others. It is not true, for example, that violence was always absent from Martinique and Guadeloupe even if nothing compares to the brutality of the war of Algeria in the French West Indies (see Confiant). It is also probably true that departmentalization was not the only alternative to violence; after all, not all African states had to wage wars before being granted their independence. It is, however, possible that the specter of the Congo haunted Césaire long after Lumumba’s death. And finally, it may well be that the word “violence” cannot simply be reduced to an opposition between metaphorical, or verbal and physical or political violence: the violence of words in Césaire is not purely metaphorical if someone like Fanon could claim the master’s murder in Et les chiens se taisaient as a model. Of course, as Albert Owusu-Sarpong suggests, “Il faut se placer dans le contexte politique et historique. Césaire a écrit la pièce en 1944, à une époque où la France était occupée par les forces hitlériennes, où tout était censuré par le gouvernement de Vichy” ‘We must remember the political and historical context. Césaire wrote the play in 1944, when France was still occupied by Hitler’s armies, where everything was censored by the Vichy government’ (153). The critic therefore concludes his comparison between Fanon and Césaire by stating that “la décolonisation pour Césaire sera révolutionnaire mais elle ne sera pas violente” ‘for Césaire, decolonization will be revolutionary but not violent’ (160) and that “la violence des ces personnages césairiens est surtout verbale” ‘the violence of Cesairian characters is mostly verbal’ (160). And yet, who is to say that Fanon was wrong to have appropriated the play as an incitation to insurrection and to violence? (See Fanon 86-88.) His responsibility as a reader is to have chosen his side among the characters that present us with many different political positions, many different ideological choices. Césaire’s plays are not about Violence in general but about the confrontation between Ariel and Caliban, between, to paraphrase Aragon, “celui qui croyait à la violence et celui qui n’y croyait pas” ‘the one who believed in violence and the one who did not’ between Christophe and Wilberforce, he who believed that a [End Page 87] nation can be invented and he who thinks that nations demand time and ripening. The plays as a whole are neither an apology of violence nor an hymn to nonviolence but the recognition that violence may take different forms, that each type of violence has a price, and that choosing may be about accepting to pay that particular price.

Ultimately, I think that the awakener is waiting for the reader to choose. Reading “Crevasses,” from Moi, laminaire, Jonathan Ngaté hears a “challenge so deafening in the end precisely because it is not explicitly stated: ‘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” (52). Ngaté now speaks for Césaire, as if history had turned the tables on the “semeur.” What Keith Walker calls, about The Discourse on Colonialism, “une anti-rhétorique de persuasion permanente, distincte de la séduction circonstancielle du beau parleur” ‘an antirhetoric of permanent persuasion, different from the opportunistic seduction of the smooth talker’ (69) could be seen as the distinctive characteristic of a poet who believed in words uttered by those who had been woken by his own “cri nègre.” But if there is something beyond words, it may well be the fragile horizon of changes imagined without any desire to impose them.

Mireille Rosello is a professor in the Department of French and Italian at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.


1. Daniel Delas considers that Roger Toumson and Simonne Henry Valmore have written “la première biographie officielle de Césaire” (“Aimé Césaire” 48). He also suggests that the Cesairian controversy has provisionally ended with Chamoiseau’s Ecrire en pays dominé and that the time may have come for academics to analyze “avec sérénité” ‘calmly’ (48) all the books published between 1989 (Eloge de la créolité) and 1997. See also Richard Burton’s “Two Views of Césaire: Négritude and créolité.”

2. The attack against Cixous and Kristeva appears in Vagit-Prop 41ff. On Aimé Césaire, see also her Pour Césaire (1993) and Statue cou coupé (1995).

3. Confiant himself says that his book “se veut le cri sincère d’un films qui estime avoir été trahi par ses pères et en l’occurrence par le premier d’entre eux, Aimé Césaire” ‘is meant as the sincere cry of a son who believes that he has been betrayed by his forefathers and in this particular case, by the original father, Aimé Césaire’ (37).

4. “Déclaration du mardi 9 février 1993,” Le Progressiste 17 Feb. 1993 cited in Toumson and Henry-Valmore, Le nègre inconsolé 214, last paragraph.

5. In his introduction to Cahier d’un retour au pays natal Irele also points out that the tree plays a different role once it has reached its plenitude: “. . . [I]t embraces the earth and everything above it in its representation of the total spatial context of life. [. . .] The immediate affective value of the tree as an image of rootedness is thus extented by its messianic import, the connotation it assumes of an exultant upsurge ot the life force” (lxviii).

6. And the growth of other “pollen bearing thoughts” is bound to mirror Césaire’s own conflictual relationship to others’ postulates and philosophies. Legacies also create divisions if not rivalries. Regardless of the more or less palatable struggle for power that any leader’s departure triggers, it is probably desirable that intellectual dissensions occur among different interpretations of his work: for a good overview of more or less conflictual dialogues over Césaire’s accomplishments, see Théodore.

7. The image is used by Césaire himself in the poem he wrote for Depestre and republished in Noria (“Le verbe marronner / A René Despestre” 368-371): the narrator imagines a dialectical tension between the form and the (revolutionary) content of the poem and warns his friend about the


[. . .] détour dialectique
par quoi la forme prenant sa revanche
comme un figuier maudit étouffe le poème (370)
[. . .] the dialectical
backlash by which the form taking its revenge
chokes the poems like an accursed fig tree (371)

8. In Le métier à métisser, Depestre writes: “Un jour j’ai découvert à l’île Maurice le banian, cet arbre sacré du Sud-Est asiatique dont les racines ont la faculté, après un premier développement en tronc unique, de redescendre à la terre nourricière pour s’assurer d’autres remontées à la lumière. Mon identité-banian situe ma vie et mon aventure de poète à l’inverse de l’exil” ‘I once discovered the banyan in Mauritius. The roots of this sacred tree from Southeast Asia first develop as a unique trunk then send shoots back to the nourishing earth to ensure other future ascents towards the light. My banyan-identity inscribes my life and my poetic adventure as the reverse of exile’ (14).

9. As Toumson remarks, it is not so much the duality of Césaire’s career that is remarkable (he points out that Malraux and Aragon–and we may add Senghor–followed the same path), but “c’est la manière dont ces identités en viennent, alternativement à se superposer et à s’opposer, c’est leur combinaison qui a quelque chose d’insolite, d’absolument inattendu chez Césaire” ‘it is the way in which those identities are alternately superimposed or opposed, it is their combination that is incongruous, completely unexpected in Césaire’ (“Jubilé” 19).

10. As late as March 1957, press conferences held by the FLN are still not broadcast on French radio and journalists’comments reveal that the word “indépendance” is still taboo: it is described as an “obsessive slogan” that “intoxicates” the orator (see Stora and Tristan, 22 Mar. 1957).

11. In his review, Delas addresses the trilogy, L’or des îles (Paris: Laffont, 1996), Le sang du volcan (Paris: Laffont, 1997), and Les héritiers du paradis (Paris: Laffont, 1998). The quotation is from Volume 3, p. 243).

12. See Confiant 253 for a quotation of the speech Césaire delivered at the National Assembly in 1978.

13. In an interview included in the Césaire’s filmed biography, Une voix pour l’histoire, Roger Garaudy remembers that when he heard Césaire’s declarations at the National Assembly, he was struck by this man who “remained a poet in his speeches and in his political life.” Some of Césaire’s interventions are apparently branded in Garaudy’s memory as he proceeds to quote the then young deputy’s words: “Vous avez par le colonialisme fait de ces âmes sèches qui flamberont au feu de toutes les révoltes” ‘Through colonialism you have manufactured these dried souls that will burn in the flame of all revolts’ (Palcy, episode 2).


Works Cited

Bernabé, Jean. “Négritude césairienne et créolité.” Europe 832-833 (1998): 57-78.

_____ , Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant. Eloge de la créolité / In Praise of Creoleness. Trans. Taleb-Khyar. Paris: Gallimard, 1989 and 1993.

Burton, Richard. “Two Views of Césaire: Négritude and créolité.” Dalhousie French Studies 35 (1996): 135-52.

Césaire, Aimé. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal / Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. The Collected Poetry. Trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983. 43-85.

_____ . La tragédie du roi Christophe. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1963.

_____ . The Tragedy of King Christophe. Trans. Ralph Manhein. New York: Grove 1969.

_____ . “Poetry and Knowledge.” Lyric and Dramatic Poetry. Trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1990. xlii-lvi. Originally published as “Poésie et connaissance.” Tropiques (II). Paris: Jean-Michel Place. 157-70.

_____ . “Le verbe marronner / à René Depestre, poète haïtien.” The Collected Poetry. Trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983. 368-71.

_____ . “Transmission.” Moi, laminaire. Eschleman and Smith (Trans.). Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990. 148-49.

Chamoiseau, Patrick. Ecrire en pays dominé. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

_____ . Texaco. Paris: Gallimard, 1992.

_____ . Texaco. Trans. Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Van Vinokurov. New York: Pantheon, 1997.

Confiant, Raphaël. Aimé Césaire ou une traversée paradoxale du siècle. Paris: Stock, 1993.

Delas, Daniel. “Histoires de békés.” Notre Librairie 136 (1999): 124-28.

_____ . “Aimé Césaire, écrivain créole.” Europe 832-33 (1998): 48-56.

_____ . Aimé Césaire ou “le verbe parturiant.” Paris: Hachette, 1991.

Depestre, René. Le métier à métisser. Paris: Stock, 1998.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove, 1963.

Irele, Abiola, ed. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2000.

Kesteloot, Lilyan. “La quête d’un poète et le socle du ressentiment.” Oeuvres et critiques 19.2 (1994): 75-83.

. “Politique, poétique et quête mystique dans la poésie d’Aimé Césaire.” Esprit créateur 32.1 (1992): 7-15.

LeBrun, Annie. “Aimé Césaire, Liberté du langage et langage de la liberté.” Portulan Feb. 1996: 17-34.

_____ . Statue cou coupé. Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1996.

_____ . Pour Césaire. Paris Jean-Michel Place, 1994.

_____ . Vagit-Prop, Lâchez tout et autres textes. Paris: Ramsay, 1990.

Leiner, Jacqueline. Aimé Césaire le terreau primordial. Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 1993.

Ngaté, Jonathan. “Aimé Césaire on Aimé Césaire: A Complementary Reading of ‘Crevasses’ (from Moi, laminaire . . .)” Esprit créateur 32.1 (1992): 41-53.

Owusu-Sarpong, Albert. Le temps historique dans l’oeuvre théâtrale d’Aimé Césaire. Sherbrooke: Naaman, 1986.

Palcy, Euzhan. “Au rendez-vous de la conquête” (Episode 2). Aimé Césaire: une voix pour l’histoire.(Videorecording: San Francisco: California Newsreel, 1994.)

Ponnamah, Michel. “Cette insondable césure.” Portulan Feb. 1996: 117-21.

James, Arnold. Modernism and Negritude. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Latortue, Régine. “Le corps du roi: Christophe, le tragique architecte.” Oeuvres et critiques 19.2 (1994): 295-300.

Scharfman, Ronnie. “Aimé Césaire, la différence critique.” Oeuvres et critiques 19.2 (1994): 119-24.

Stora, Benjamin, and Anne Tristan. La Guerre d’Algérie. Paris: INA et La Découverte. CD ROM, 1998.

Suréna, Guillaume. “Le meurtre du père nègre dans l’oeuvre d’Aimé Césaire.” Oeuvres et critiques 19.2 (1994): 359-75.

Théodore, Jean-Marie. “La réception politique de l’oeuvre d’Aimé Césaire.” Oeuvres et critiques 19.2 (1994): 79-88.

Toumson, Roger. “Jubilé (pour le quatre-vingtième anniversaire d’Aimé Césaire).” Oeuvres et critiques 19.2 (1994): 15-22.

_____ and Simonne Henry-Valmore. Le nègre inconsolé. Paris: Syros, 1993.

_____ and Daniel Delas. Apologie d’Aimé Césaire suivi de Césaire et Senghor. Antilles- Guyane: CRDP, 1991.

Walker, Keith Louis. “Prolégomènes à une étude de la rhétoricalité césairienne.” Esprit créateur 32.1 (1992): 69-86.


This entry was posted in Créolité, Vanguardias. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “The ‘Césaire Effect,’ or How to Cultivate One’s Nation”

  1. profacero says:

    This piece has English translations of the quotations. I took them out thinking this would help with formatting, but it did not.

    Key idea here: appropriations of AC. She says the opposition violent poetry / passive politics is overly simplistic.

    Interesting: appropriations of CV. He is not just misread, he is massively appropriated. Think about this.

  2. villkor says:

    I live in Wadgassen, Germany and my career actually deals with this area.

    Actually doing what you like and writing about it in such a smart way is a great gift.

    Your enlightening article possesses the optimal combination of passion and well-written, interesting content that I’ve come to love and respect.

  3. Pingback: Research never ends | coldhearted scientist وداد

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