April 1941. Blocking the view, affixed to the beach
by madrepores and visited by surfat least the children had the playground
of their dreams to romp in all day longa ship's carcass in its very
fixity provided no respite to the exasperating impossibility of moving about
other than measured steps in the space between two bayonets: the Lazaret
concentration camp, in the harbor of Fort-de-France. Released after a few days, with what voracity did I plunge into the streets, seeking whatever still novel experience they could offer, dazzling markets, the hummingbirds in voices, the women whom Paul Eluard had described upon returning from around the world, as more beautiful than any others. Soon, however, another shipwreck was looming, threatening to again block the whole horizon: the city itself was adrift, deprived as it were of its essential parts. Shops, and everything in their windows, took on a disquieting, abstract character. Activity was a bit slower than
need be, noise too clear as if through beached debris. In the subtle air the continuous ringing, far off, of an alarm bell.
It is under these circumstances that, apropos of buying a ribbon for my daughter, I happened to leaf through a periodical on display in the haberdashery where the ribbon was sold. It was, under an extremely unpretentious cover, the first issue of a review called Tropiques which had just come out in Fort-de-France. Needless to say, knowing the extent to which ideas had been debased in the last year and not unfamiliar with the lack of scruples characteristic of police reactions in Martinique, I approached this periodical with extreme diffidence. . . I could not believe my eyes: for what was said there was what had to be said and was said in a manner not only as elegantly but elevatedly as anyone could say it! All the grimacing shadows were apart, scattered; all the lies, all the mockery shredded: thus the voice of man was in no way broken, suppressedit sprang upright again like the very spike of light. Aimé Césaire, such was the name of the one who spoke.
I shall not pretend that I did not at once take some pride in the fact what he expressed was in no way unfamiliar; the names of the poets and authors he referred to would have been in themselves sufficient evidence; but even more the tone of these pages rang true, demonstrating that a man was totally engaged in an adventure while having at his command all that was required to establish something not only of an esthetic but of a moral and social natureor better, to make his intervention necessary and inevitable. The texts which accompanied Césaire's indicated persons with generally the same tendencies and whose thinking fully coincided with his own. In complete contrast to the writings with a masochistic, not to say servile, propensity that had been published in France in recent months, Tropiques persisted in opening up a royal road. "We belong," Césaire proclaimed, "to those who say no to darkness."
This land he was revealing and which his friends helped
reconnoiter, it was my land too, yes, it was our land which I had wrongly
feared obliterated by darkness. And one could feel that he was revolting and
even before becoming more acquainted with his message, one noticed, so to
speak, that from the simplest to the rarest, all the words processed by his
tongue had been stripped, hence allowing that climax in concreteness, that
unfailingly major quality of tone by which one can so easily tell the great
poets from the lesser ones. What I learned that day was that the verbal instrument
had not gotten out of tune in the
tempest. This had to mean that the world was not in perdition: it would regain its soul.
By one of those flukes characteristic of the most auspicious moments, the West Indian haberdasher soon identified herself as the sister of Rene Menil who was, along with Césaire, the main driving force behind Tropiques. Her mediation reduced to a minimum the conveying of the few words I scribbled in haste on her counter. Indeed, less than an hour later, after looking for me all over the streets, she gave me an appointment arranged by her brother. Menil: genuine culture in its least ostentatious form, impeccable restraint, but nevertheless nerve with all its tremoring currents.
And the next day, Césaire. I recall my first quite
elementary reaction at finding him of a black so pure and even more unnoticeable
at first sight because he was smiling. Through him (I already knew it, I see
it and everything will confirm it later), human essence is heated to a point
of maximum effervescence in which knowledgehere of the highest
orderoverlaps with magical gifts. In my eyes his emergence, and I do not mean merely that day, in a form sheerly his own, takes on the value of a sign of our times. Thus, defying single-handedly an era in which we appear to be witnessing the general abdication of the mind, in which nothing appears to be created except for the purpose of perfecting the triumph of death, in which art itself threatens to congeal in obsolete schemes, the first revivifying new breath capable of restoring confidence comes from a black. And it is a black who handles the French language in a manner that no white man is capable of today. And it is a black who guides us today into the unexplored, establishing along the way, as if by child's play, the contacts that make us advance on sparks. And it is a black who is not only a black but all of man, who conveys all of man's questionings, all of his anguish, all of his hopes and all of his ecstasies and who will remain more and more for me the prototype
Our meetings, in the evenings, after his high school
classes (which were at that time focusing on Rimbaud) in a bar turned into
a single crystal by the outside light, the gatherings on the terrace of his
house made even more enchanting by the presence of
Suzanne Césaire, who radiated like flambé punch, but even more an excursion into the heart of the island: I shall always see us, without any other landmark to navigate through an ocean of delirious vegetation than the large, enigmatic balisier flower which is a threefold heart throbbing on the tip of a spear, leaning dangerously from very high over the abyss of Absalom as if over the very crucible in which poetic images are transformed when powerful enough to shake the world. It is there, under the auspices of that flower that the mission, assigned to man today, of breaking violently with the modes of thinking and feeling which eventually render his existence impossible took on imprescriptible form. That once and for all I was confirmed in the idea that nothing will do short of lifting a certain number of taboos, of finally eliminating from human blood the deadly toxins fostered in it
by the (let's face it) lazier and lazier belief in a beyond, the esprit de corps absurdly linked to nations and races, and (supreme abjection) the ower of money. Inevitably, for the past century, it has devolved upon poets to split open that armature which stifles us, and it is significant note that posterity tends to consecrate only those who have taken this task the furthest.
That afternoon, facing the luxurious opening of all the floodgates of greenery, I truly valued a feeling of total communion with one of them, of knowing him above all as a man of will and of not distinguishing essentially his will from my own.
I also valued having solid evidence that he was a
person of total achievement: a few days earlier he had given me an offprint
of his Notebook of a Return to the Native Land from a small Parisian
journal in which the poem must have passed unnoticed in 1939, and that poem
is nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of our times. It brought
me the rarest of certainties, one which can never be attained by oneself:
its author had gambled on everything that I had ever believed in and he had,
unquestionably, won. The stakestaking into account Césaire's specific
geniuswere our common conception
To begin with one will find in his poetry that luxuriance
of movement, that at times gushing, at times showering, exuberance, that ability
to constantly and deeply stir the affective worldall traits characteristic
of authentic poetry in contrast to the fake
poetry, poisonous would-be poetry, constantly proliferating around it. To sing or not to sing, that is the question and there is no salvation in poetry for someone who does not sing, although the poet is expected to do more than sing. And needless to say
that when one who does not sing resorts to rhyme, fixed meter and other bogus devices, he will only fool the ears of Midas. Aimé Césaire is first and foremost one who sings.
Once that first absolutely necessary but not sufficient condition is fulfilled, a poetry worthy of its name is measured by the degree of abstention, of refusal, it implies and that negative component of its nature must be maintained as essential: it balks at tolerating anything already seen, heard, agreed upon, at using anything already used except when diverting it from its previous function. In this respect, Césaire is one of the most demanding poets not only because he is probity itself, but because of the extent of his culture, the quality and breadth of his knowledge.
Finallyand here, to remove any doubt brought about by the fact that, exceptionally, Notebook of a Return is a poem "with a theme," if not a thesis, " I specify that I am referring just as much to the poems of a different tenor that followed itthe value of Césaire's poetry, as with all great poetry and all great art, rests principally in the power of transmutation that it brings into play: namely in turning the most discredited materials, including even ugliness and servitude, into not just gold or the philosopher's stone but into freedom itself.¹
The gift of song, the capacity for refusal, the power of extraordinary transmutation that I have just mentioned cannot be idly reduced to a handful of technical secrets. All that one can legitimately say is that all three find the largest common denominator in an exceptional, and until further notice, irreducible intensity of emotion confronting the spectacle of life (to the point where one is moved to change it). At most, critics are permitted to say something about the conflicting aspects of the formation of the personality in question and to bring out the striking circumstances of that formation. Unquestionably in Césaire's case it would for once lead us, at full gallop, away from the path of indifference.
In this respect, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land is a unique, irreplaceable document. The very title, as under stated as it is, aims at placing the reader at the core of the conflict which most affects the author, a conflict which he must, at all costs, transcend. The poem was written in Paris, after Césaire had just left the École Normale Supérieure and was about to return to Martinique. His native land, yes, how could one resist the call of this particular island, who would not succumb to its skies, its siren-like beckonings, its language oh so cajoling? But in no time at all darkness encroaches: one need only put oneself in Césaire's place to understand what assaults this nostalgia must sustain. Behind this floral design there is the wretchedness of a colonized people, their shameless exploitation by a handful of parasites in defiance of the very laws of their mother-country and without any qualms about dishonoring it; there is the resignation of this people, geographically disadvantaged by being a mere scattering of islands here and there. Behind all of this, only a few generations back here is slavery and here the wound reopens, yawning with the whole width of a lost Africa,² with ancestral memories of abominable tortures, with the awareness of a monstrous and forever irreparable denial of justice inflicted upon an entire collectivity. A collectivity to which the departing poet belongs body and soul, as enriched as he may have been by all the teachings of the white world and thereby at that moment all the more torn.
Quite naturally the Notebook becomes an arena
for revendication, bitterness, sometimes despair, to compete in, and the author
opens himself to the most dramatic taking stock. His revendication, one can
never point out enough, is the most legitimate in the world, so much that
the merest consideration of justice should prompt the white to grant it. But
we are still a long way from that, even if we are beginning put it timidly
on the agenda: "In the former colonies, which will fall under a new regime
and whose evolution towards democracy will become an international issue,
democracy will have to put an end not only to the exploitation of colored
people but to the social and political 'racism' of the white man."³ One awaits
with equal impatience the day when, outside these colonies, the great mass
of colored people will no longer be insultingly segregated and restricted
to inferior jobs or worse. If this expectation is not met by the international
settlements that will come into play at the end of the present war, one might
be forced to endorse, once and for all and with all that implies, the opinion
that the emancipation of colored people can
only be brought about by themselves.
However, as fundamental as Césaire's revendication
appears to be, to limit its implications to the immediate would mean reducing
its scope unforgivably. What I find invaluable in it is that it constantly
transcends the anguish a black associates with the fate of black people in
modern society, and that, becoming one with the anguish of all poets, artists.
and bona fide thinkers, but adding to it the bonus of verbal genius, it encompasses
the condition allotted to man by that society even to its unbearable,
but also infinitely amendable, dimensions. And here comes to the fore in bold
type what surrealism has always considered as the first article of its charter:
a deliberate will to deal the coup de grâce to that which one calls "common
sense (which does not stop short of calling itself "reason"), and the imperious
need to do away with the deadly division in the human spirit in which one
component has managed to give itself complete license at the expense of the other, whereas the very suppression of the latter will inevitably end up exalting it. If slave traders have physically disappeared from the world stage, their vile spirit is undoubtedly still at work in the sense that our dreams become their "piece of ebony," more than half of our nature stolen by them, that cursorily-considered cargo to this day barely good enough to rot in the hold of their ship. "Because we hate you. you and your reason, we claim kinship with dementia praecox, with the flaming madness of persistent cannibalism. . . Put up with me, I won't put up with you." And suddenly this transfiguring gaze, a bluish fuzz on the embers, like the no longer fallacious promise of a redemption: behold the one Césaire and I see as the greatest prophet of times to come, I mean Isidore Ducasse, Count of Lautreamont: "Lautreamont's poetry, beautiful like a writ of expropriation. . . Into lyrical and pallid strewings—like the fingers of the tropical pear tree when they fall in the gangrene of evening—he piles up the death trumpets of a laughable philosophy which raises, to the dignity of wonder of a hierarchized world, man, feet, hands and navel—a howling of fists against the barrier of the sky. . . The first to have understood that poetry starts with excess, disproportion, quests deemed unacceptable, amidst the great blind tom-tom. . . up to the incomprehensible shower of stars."4
Aimé Césaire's voice, beautiful like nascent oxygen.
1 I did not wait to read this statement (published in Lettres françaises #7-8,February 1943) in order to embrace its opposite: "I see poetry essentially as a form of writing which, in compliance not only with the rules of prose but with other rules specific to it. number, rhythm, regular assonance, must nevertheless surpass it in power. . . Thus I demand that poetry possess all the qualities of prose, in the first place: nakedness, precision, clarity. The poet must aim at expressing all and only what he has in mind. Ultimately nothing unutterable, hinted at, no evocative images, no mystery. . ." Roger Caillois, often better inspired, makes here a perfectly Philistine statement.
2 Referring to the observations of European navigators at the end of the Middle Ages, Leo Frobenius writes: 'When they arrived in the Bay of Guinea and landed at Vaida the captains were surprised to find there well-designecl streets, lined, for several miles, by double rows of trees: for many days they moved through a countryside covered with magnificent fields, populated by men clad in dazzling cloths of which they themselves had woven the fabric! Further south, in the kingdom of the Congo, a swarming crowd, dressed in 'silk' and 'velvet,' large states, well-organized down to the smallest detail, powerful sovereigns, prosperous industries. Civilized to the quick!" (Cited in Tropiques April 1942).
3 Pierre Cot: 'The different kinds of domestic constitutions" (Le Monde libre #2, December 1945).
4 Aimé Césaire ''Isidore
Ducasse, Comte de Lautreamont'' (Tropiques 6-7,
New York, 1943