Tag Archives: Cesaire

Cesaire vs. Ginsberg: Post Colonial Writing as Transgressive Literature?

25 Feb

I know this is going off on a tangent a little bit, but I had to blog this here– beg your pardon in advance.

So, Césaire’s poem (‘Cahier d’un retour au pays natal’) was originally published in French in 1939, while Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ was published in 1956. It’s not a huge stretch to take note of the similar treatments and themes throughout: exploitation, surreal imagery, the use of lists, choruses, invocations.

What made me think of ‘Howl’ was the introduction written by André Breton: here was a noted Surrealist, adored by the Beats, drawing attention to a writer who would become a forebear of Post-Colonial literature. In addition, Breton quotes a line from Isidore-Lucien Ducasse– “a howling of fists against the barrier of the sky”– and claims that Césaire thought highly of Ducasse and once published him in ‘Tropiques’, a literary review that Wikipedia says Césaire co-founded in 1941.

A quick trawling of the internet pulled up information on Ducasse, a poet and writer I had never heard of before. Ducasse was apparently a major influence on Césaire as well as the surrealists. What’s interesting is that  Ducasse’s most famous creation, the character Maldoror, is eerily similar to Ginsberg’s Moloch, both used to denote evil in total opposition to anything good in Humanity.

One Mark Spitzer (translator of ‘From Absinthe to Abyssinia’, a collection of Rimbaud’s poems) recounts an anecdote shared by one Steve Collins, who claims Ginsberg shared Ducasse’s ‘Les Chants de Maldoror’ with Bob Dylan, who was then inspired to create ‘Taratula‘ (google books link).

So, perhaps Ducasse’s large prose poem inspired Césaire’s long poem and possibly separately, Ginsberg’s long poem? Is Ducasse a grandfather of Transgressive Literature? If so, could it be possible that Post-Colonial literature is a type of Transgressive Literature?
And yet, I vaguely remember some Wiki page having to do with Post-Colonial Literary Criticism claiming that Edward Said analyzed Ducasse’s poetry and found it contributed indirectly to a sense of European-centric racial superiority!
(N.B– Went back to look this over: I didn’t find any specific text linking Said and Ducasse, except for book by David Bate, called ‘Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent’ (available on Google Books), which discusses how Said criticized the scope of the Surrealists’ Anti-Colonial stance.)
Transgressive Literature broadly involves challenging some popular aspect of society or culture– I’d like to argue that Césaire does as much with his poem, and that this is the aim of of Machado de Assis and Jean Rhys in their respective books.
Wondering, has anyone seen anything that builds connections between Post-Colonial and Transgressive (perhaps even Beat) writing/criticism?

Cesaire, Fanon, and the Irreducible Identity

22 Feb

In “Leaves of Grass” Walt Whitman comments, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Franz Fanon evokes a similar concept of identity in Black Skin, White Masks, but while Whitman exults in his utter complexities of being, Fanon seems to become completely mired in them. Fanon seems to be concerned about irreducibility – he writes on page 13, “I belong irreducibly to my time,” and throughout the essay he struggles to categorize himself or anyone else as anything but utterly complex. And yet, at the same time, his description of the world’s vision of him is entirely reducible- he is called almost exclusively “nigger” or “negro” in the dialogue portions, and the people he discusses seem preoccupied with defining people by their skin color before anything else. While Fanon seems desperately to wish to break out of this categorical process of identifying, we find that ultimately he feels he has failed. He concludes chapter 5 with the thought, “without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep” (140).

            In contrast, Cesaire struggles with some similar identity issues in his poem. His conclusion also falls to a reducibility of sorts, but he reduces his own identity past categories into “the essence of things.” The racial term that he uses to define himself, “negritude,” breaks itself down into something that is essentially nothing (the repetition of “it is not,” “it is not,” on page 35) except for the root of everything (“it takes root in the red flesh of the soil / it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky”). In this way, Cesaire solves the problem by universalizing a “canvas” for identity – the canvas being “the essence of things” – and allowing people to build their pride in themselves upon that rather than basing it purely in something visual, cultural, or historical. Ostensibly, Fanon is against this type of universal identity, as he writes on page 135 “I am not a potentiality of something, I am wholly what I am. I do not have to look for the universal.” And yet, he declares himself “the poet of the world,” only a few pages earlier, showing that even as he makes bold statements, he cannot quite hold them together. It seems to me that he wants what Cesaire finds, and yet still cannot be satisfied by it.

            Thus, these vastly differing concepts of what it means to be black – arising from similar problems, and yet diverging in their ultimate conclusions – reveal the concept of identity to be both utterly essential and yet fundamentally broken in the aftermath of colonialism. 

Physical vs. Mental Aspects of Race

22 Feb


Fanon’s White Skin Black Mask draws some interesting connections between self-identification and race. I was especially intrigued by Fanon’s delineation of race as this sort of physical burden that one cannot get away from when it is so stigmatized. Fanon writes, “I am the slave not of the ‘idea’ that others have of me but of my own appearance.” Here, Fanon separates the mental from the physical; he claims that he is a “slave” because of the physical appearance he cannot change. The idea of him as a living, breathing individual is not so easy for others to oppress because there is nothing so different about him from them. Because of the color of his skin, the ideas of others can enslave him. I found this dichotomy fascinating because of how Fanon proves that certain “ideas” are respected because of the physical representation they come from.

Another passage I highlighted is, “Consciousness of the body is solely a negating activity. It is a third-person consciousness.” I’m not entirely sure I grasp the full meaning of Fanon’s words, but because of their complexity and the unusual idea they are getting at, I keep going back and re-reading them. What I think Fanon is trying to say is that our perception of our physical body negates the idea of thinking about our physical body in the first place. He says it is a “third-person consciousness,” which I take to mean as some sort of outer-body thinking that is not the same as consciously recognizing one’s own soul. These are deep ideas to get at, especially concerning what we’ve been discussing in class this week. I found it interesting to compare Fanon’s ideas with these lines from Cesaire’s “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land”:

My negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against

the clamor of the day

my negritude is not a leukoma of dead liquid over the earth’s

dead eye

my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral

it takes root in the red flesh of the soil

it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky

it breaks through opaque prostration with its upright patience.

Here, Cesaire defines his pride in his race not as a physical object in nature, but as an idea that takes root in nature and persists “with its upright patience.” Both Cesaire and Fanon see the mental image of race as persisting over the physicality of race. The physicality is what everyone sees, when what everyone needs to see is the way that people think.