The following is a retrospective written about 20th century Martiniquan Aimé Césaire following his passing 9 years ago today on 17th April 2008. I originally wrote it at the request of the French Department of the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine campus (Trinidad & Tobago), where I had written a research paper on Césaire the year before.
Caribbean luminary Aimé Césaire passed away on the 17th of April 2008 in his native Martinique at the age of 94, and was honoured with a French state funeral – something bestowed upon only three other literary figures in France before him, including Victor Hugo (1885) and Paul Valéry (1945). As word of his passing started to spread, condolences immediately began pouring in from all corners of the world – the French-speaking world at least. I myself remember rushing to my computer to check the accuracy of the story as soon as I heard it on television; I knew full well that he was getting on in age but, having studied some of his works, I had come to have immense respect for this man of letters turned man of politics, whose works seem to give me new revelations each and every time I take even a cursory glance at them.
Aimé Césaire was a writer and politician, and was the architect of French Caribbean political transformation in the mid-twentieth century, in the wake of the Second World War. He led a double career with great achievements on both the literary and political fronts. His 2-essay, 4-play, 7-poetic work literary oeuvre boasts some of the most celebrated works under the umbrella of Postcolonial Literature, including the 65-page poetic opus Notebook of a Return to My Native Land (Cahier d’Un Retour au Pays Natal, 1939) and the political essay Discourse on Colonialism (Discours sur le Colonialisme, 1955).
Césaire received a thorough colonial education, schooled first at Lycée Victor Schoelcher in Martinique and continuing on to Lycée Louis le Grand in Paris, before ultimately gaining entry to the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure. It was during his 8-year sojourn in Paris that Césaire would befriend and collaborate with other young students from across the French-speaking African diaspora, such as Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal (who went on to be the first president of an independent Senegal in 1960), taking conscience of the condition of the culturally comatose colonised African peoples; these collaborations would bear fruit in the form of numerous literary reviews and, most notably, the groundbreaking black pride concept of Negritude.
After his time in Paris, Césaire returned to Martinique as a teacher. His political career began when he was elected Mayor of Fort-de-France in 1945 on a Communist ticket (he would serve as mayor for near half a century until 2001), going on to be elected an MP in the French National Assembly (1946 – 1993). It was at this point that he ushered several French island colonies, among them islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, as well as French Guiana in South America and Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, into the status of French Overseas Department (DOM), on 19th March 1946, thereby affording those populations opportunities their ancestors could only have dreamt of.
Many an informed opinion has been expressed about Césaire. To the writers of Éloge de la Créolité (In Praise of Creoleness) he is an intellectual standard bearer, but is ultimately not oriented towards the Caribbean as much as they would have liked; existentialist stalwart Jean-Paul Sartre hailed him as a poetic genius albeit a somewhat necessarily prejudiced one, calling Negritude an anti-racist racism necessary to counter colonial racism; and for surrealist André Breton he was a master of the French language and an intellectual brother in surrealism.
His literature although largely underappreciated and even “for the most part ignored” in metropolitan France as noted in a 19th April obituary by globally respected French daily Le Monde and as evidenced by the fact that he was never admitted into the ranks of that infallible guardian of the French language that is the Académie Française, Césaire was a son of La Francophonie, and has always been appreciated throughout the black French-speaking world. He has been heralded as an intellectual giant in academic and political circles the world over, and revered by the masses in his native Martinique. The exploration of the master-slave relationship is a running theme in Césaire’s literature, and his works are preoccupied with liberty and identity.
Quite a great deal can be said about what makes Aimé Césaire a notable figure in the wider world, but why he should be seen as important in the Caribbean region? Many have reflected upon what could be called his mainstream essays, poems and plays, but the essence of Césaire’s importance and of the magnitude of the Caribbean’s loss upon his passing is also to be seen in a less often cited piece of writing.
In 1956, a decade into his political career, Césaire left the French Communist Party citing differences of perspective. He saw it fit to break with the communist party and its predilection for subordinating all other forms of struggle to the European class struggle. He formed the Martinique Progressive Party (Parti Progressiste Martiniquais) for which – interestingly enough in a Trinidadian context – he would choose the balisier flower as the symbol; the use of this emblem is a reality that begs one to draw parallels between the French Caribbean’s Aimé Césaire and a certain towering Anglophone Caribbean figure from Trinidad who was active during the same time period, but alas space would not allow for such a potentially rich comparative study in this article!
‘Papa Césaire’, as he was affectionately known in Martinique, laid out his standpoint in a letter to the leader of the Communist Party of the day, Maurice Thorez, putting his mastery of the French language on full display in highlighting, in view of what Walter Rodney would later speak of as “the balance sheet of colonialism” (in his seminal work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa), what made the people of the French Caribbean colonies – and indeed of the Caribbean region, where all countries have experienced centuries of European colonisation – unique, laying out 4 levels of ‘singularity’:
“Singularity of our situation in the world, which is unlike any other.
Singularity of our problems, which are subordinate to no other problems.
Singularity of our history shaken by its own terrible calamities.
Singularity of our culture, which we want to live out in a more and more real manner.”
Simply put, Caribbean people (I am extrapolating here since Césaire would have been speaking particularly of people of African descent) must be able to be themselves and come into their own, on their own terms, having a unique history of difficulties that they alone can progress beyond.
Césaire taught us about all aspects of life’s endeavours being complementary, and his message is relevant to Caribbean people from all walks of life. His was a combat consisting of ‘total fusion and integration’ of his own issues and his own stance with those of the people of the French islands in particular, but indeed also of the Greater Caribbean. His influence runs the gamut of what is usually covered as part of a solid tertiary education; he was a literary figure, and a politician, ethnographer and social scientist in his own right and even addressed the world of natural sciences, commenting that ‘poetic knowledge was born out of the great silence of scientific knowledge’, whereby man manipulates, but does not necessarily fully comprehend the world and everything that forms part of his mortal existence.
Césaire brought elements together from all corners of the vast universe that is ‘knowledge’ to drive home the point that people like those of the Caribbean were no longer to view themselves as moral vagabonds, or as proverbial hewers of wood and drawers of water for outside interests, to indulge in a proverbial Biblical reference. This group of people is to take cognisance of itself, armed with all the intellectual tools at its disposal, be they art, culture, spiritual, social or natural science-related, to affirm its cultural identity and organise itself with a view to getting up out of the hole that colonialism had cast it into; as one renowned Césaire specialist put it, Aimé Césaire ‘tried to give Caribbean people a sense of human dignity, to free them from their fear of living and of being free, […] in short he attempted to free them from their slave mentality’. In all of our developing Caribbean societies, the importance of such a sweeping rallying call must never be underestimated.
Referred to by former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin as ‘a magnificent writer and a true politican’, Césaire proclaims that there are two ways to lose oneself: by closed-minded walled segregation, or by being diluted in the “universal”, where everything in human existence is viewed as part of some sort of indivisible whole.
He explains that the onus is on formerly colonised peoples, like those of the Caribbean region, to ensure they do not fall victim to either of the two; indeed, it can be said that for the Caribbean population of today, in the throes of the identity-numbing phenomenon that is Globalisation where any and all things seem to be inextricably intertwined and homogenised Aimé Césaire’s message and imperatives still ring true.
‘If you wish to understand my politics, read my poetry’ Césaire was quoted as saying on one occasion. The Caribbean has lost one of its last heavyweights, in the humble opinion of the writer of this article, but his extensive body of work remains as a testament and a source of inspiration for us all.
Aimé Césaire, paix à votre âme