Tag Archives: Literature

Assimilation and Integration

9 Apr

Monsieur Alcibiade gives a political speech in Texaco in which he speaks favorably of France but rails against “subjection, the goal of which was to exploit the colony in France’s interest alone.” He later presents the metaphor of a daughter walking side-by-side with the mother to represent the ideal situation of Martinique maturing. Throughout Texaco (thus far), there are a great deal of references to the population’s love of France and French culture. Nelta, while presented as a character who wished to travel the whole world, dreams primarily of Marseille. Aside from Alice in Wonderland, even the skeptical Marie Sophie holds on to books by French authors.

Against our expectations, Martiniquans are never shown revolting against the motherland, even in the face of casualties from the two World Wars. Although Alcibiade serves as an antagonist and no fan of Cesaire, his views do not seem entirely out of step with Cesaire or many of Chamoiseau’s more sympathetic characters. Cesaire’s desire to make Martinique a “department” of France, which would seem to be in step with Alcibiade, seems odd. Why would Cesaire want this?

In “Political integration as an Alternative to Independence in the French Antilles,” Arvin W. Murch conducts a study on Antillean (Martinique and Guadaloupe) leaders’ attitudes toward France and independence in contrast to an earlier study on former British holdings in West Indies. His purpose was to get to the bottom of what seemed like an anomaly (The French Antilles moving toward “closer integration with metropolitan France”) in the “age of nationalism.”

The findings of the study, published in 1968 (the timing of this study seemed appropriate for the novel, particularly the section we are covering on Tuesday) are intriguing. Based on the earlier study of the West Indies, Murch asserts that if the Antilles have not moved toward independence, that it can be attributed to “(1) the absence of an enlightened leadership capabe of mobilizing these demands, or (2) an already satisfactory level of equality in the local society” (546).

Murch provides data proving that Martinique (and Guadaloupe) did, in fact, have an enlightened leadership (by this he means a leadership that buys into Enlightenment ideas such as The Rights of Man), pointing toward more satisfactory economic and human rights conditions. Despite some of the evidence we see in Texaco, Murch does prove that conditions such as an open society and access to education are, at least, better at the time in Martinique than Jamaica.

Importantly, Murch discusses the idea of assimilation, likening France’s policy to that of Ancient Greece, as opposed to the British’s resemblance to the Romans. In the Greek model, the mother/father state “sought to make each holding an integral part culturally, politically, and commercially of the homeland.” (548). Perhaps for this reason, the data shows that a majority of “enlightened” leaders in the Antilles did not see independence as necessary to achieve an egalitarian society.

Importantly, a survey also showed that many leaders believed that independence was not politically or economically feasible at the time. While this hints at more cynical thinking regarding the relationship between colony/former colony and mother country, there is also strong evidence to support that the connection between the people of the French Antilles and French culture was equally as significant in terms of attitudes toward independence.

All in all, the study is a fascinating look at the attitudes of leaders in the Caribbean in the mid to late 1960s. Despite the sound methodology and the reasonable assumptions the author makes based on his findings, this seems to stand somewhat in contrast with Texaco, where overcrowding and poverty cannot be simply brushed aside by a sentence or a favorable comparison with Jamaica. In fact, the only point easily reconciled between study and novel is that the French Antilles enjoyed a relatively open society where there were less barriers to intermarriage. Indeed, Texaco spends a fair amount of words detailing the crumbling barriers between social strata and the changing realities faced by Fort-de-France’s various castes. It also shows a break between the author and the protagonist and Aime Cesaire, which perhaps hints that the enlightened leaders of Martinique were not entirely representative of their constituents.

Literary Labels as an Othering Force

22 Feb

Fanon writes, “I believe that the fact of a juxtaposition of the white and black races has created a massive psychoexistential complex. I hope by analyzing it to destroy.”

One of the most regrettable behaviors in literature is the pidgeonholing of work. “Queer lit,” “African-American lit,” “feminist lit,” etc. While these labels are often apt and speak to the subject matter, they give no indication of style and expose the unfortunate part of human nature that leads us to limit our consumption to work that deals with people like us. Furthermore, we are committing that most terrible sin: judging work by different standards. It seems condescending to think that there are different standards for African American literature (or African literature for that matter). This seems related to ideas that Said rejected.

The tendency is somewhat understandable and at times necessarily for practical and consumerist reasons, but it seems to reinforce divisions. By attaching these labels, we create the juxtaposition that Fanon writes about. One might assume that the labels exist, in part, to separate these works from predominantly white literature or the literary canon. For example, it seems that we are sometimes saying “this is good for Middle Eastern literature” instead of “this is good literature.” That creates a dynamic that is not entirely constructive. 

The flip side of this that these genres or subgenres add a great deal of texture. If we read, say, a work of African-American lit, it not only presents the reader with a well crafted and entertaining story, but a story that enhances our understanding of the African-American experience. This seems to be of literary value and also socially conscious. It would seem like a mistake not to read Cesaire as Martiniquan or black literature. Also, in light of Cesaire’s chosen subject matter, it would also be incredibly contrived to discuss the work as not Martiniquan or not a statement on being the other.

In some cases, it seems important that authors work under these labels so as not to be confused with those who would wear the “white mask” that Fanon writes of. In other cases, it seems that society is using these labels as to intentionally segregate “literature” from black or queer or third world literature as if those works would not stand up outside their own literary realm. Of course, it can and should be argued that these same labels put Caribbean literature on an equal plane with British literature by virtue of the admission that the Caribbean or Africa or the Middle East have produced works that can be called literature. It is more problematic to consider the question: if there is black literature does that mean that so many other works belong to “white” literature?

I know, of course, that these labels are largely innocuous or, at best, extremely useful for scholars. The labels are also reflective of a reality created after centuries of colonialism and oppression, a reality that many of us regret and attempt to remedy but a reality all the same. I am not arguing to the cessation of these labels, but I think it is worth noting why they sometimes stick in my throat.