Incurable Thirst: Six Theses for Aimé Césaire

Response by Christopher Winks

[Prompt: Transatlantic Networks and Contexts]


1.         To speak of Aimé Césaire in his time is necessarily to speak of our own, not only because of his personal longevity, but because the battles of his near-century of life, in whose conceptual and historical trenches he forged a poetic language of enduring power and immediacy, are far from over.  Racism, colonialism (now a neo- often shrouded in a post-), the always-already global capitalism that undergirds and fosters both – but also the miserabilism of a colonized daily life in which language is debased and where the Marvelous is hunted down to its last redoubt: the imagination.

2.         Césaire himself told Françoise Vergès in 2004:  “…the deepest part of myself is certainly to be found in my poetry.  Because I don’t know who that ‘myself’ is.  The poem, and even the poetic image, reveals him to me.” Thus, in the process of reclaiming Césaire as our contemporary, it is to his poetry that we must turn. And here is where the most significant trans-Atlantic literary connection of Césaire’s life may be established: the young Césaire’s creative confrontation with, assimilation of, and repurposing in a Black-world context the insurgent poetic legacy of Baudelaire, Lautréamont, and Rimbaud. And, of course, there is Césaire’s involvement with Surrealism, which as he points out in an interview with René Depestre, he “accepted joyfully because in it I have found more of a confirmation than a revelation.  It was a weapon that exploded the French language.”

3.         It was precisely this explosive quality of Surrealism that became central to Césaire’s aesthetic, cf. in the Notebook: “What can I do? // One must begin somewhere. // Begin what? // The only thing in the world worth beginning: // The End of the world of course.”  In a 1978 interview with Jacqueline Leiner, Césaire remarked: “Poetry is certainly a descent into oneself, but it’s also an explosion! […] deep down, my poetry is a Péléean poetry.” In so doing, Césaire identifies himself with the elemental geophysical forces of continental drift, the grinding of tectonic plates, which have shaped his native Caribbean, turning a bridge between continents into a chain of islands that remain at the mercy of earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. But Césaire aims at the End of a very specific world: “the white world / horribly weary from its immense efforts” of enslavement and colonizing “thingification” under the rhetoric of the civilizing mission. His use of cataclysmic imagery and coruscating invective links him not only with Surrealist revolt but with a deep Black diasporic tradition of the language of apocalypse, of a complete rupture with the institutional and psychic structures of oppression, which is simultaneously oriented towards imagining a reconstructive project whose intent is “to liberate the space where bristles the heart of things and the advent of man” (“Millibars of the Storm,” Solar Throat Slashed). This space is located in what Césaire calls in the Notebook “the other side of disaster” (a dreamed, remembered, and reconstructed Africa) but it can only be reached through reliving that disaster and fashioning from it a miraculous weapon.

4.         As a scholarship student at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in 1930s Paris, Césaire was immersed in Western philosophy. He recalls his initial philosophical discussions about what would become Negritude with his fellow student Léopold Sédar Senghor as follows: “I think it was in a passage in Hegel emphasizing the master-slave dialectic that we found this idea about specificity. He points out that the particular and the universal are not to be seen as opposites, that the universal is not the negation of the particular but is reached by a deeper exploration of the particular. The West told us that in order to be universal we had to start by denying that we were Black. I, on the contrary, said to myself that the more we were Black, the more universal we would be.” During the 1956 Congress of Black Artists and Writers at the Sorbonne, he brings quotations from the Latin tradition, from Marx, Hegel, Goethe, Spengler, and Malinowski to bear on a meticulous anatomization of the ways in which colonialism, in the name of modernization, not only deals mortal blows to the cultures it invades and dominates, but allows only such necessarily incomplete modernization as it is able to safely control.

5.         While a member of the Communist Party, Césaire had been part of an international network of intellectuals and activists ostensibly dedicated to the global abolition of capitalism and the instauration of socialism, fortified emotionally and logistically by the existence of the Soviet Union. Césaire dutifully wrote a poem in praise of Stalin and extolled the achievements of the USSR in Discourse on Colonialism. But his under-analyzed 1956 “Open Letter to [PCF chief] Maurice Thorez,” in its attack on Communist “fraternalism” and its advocacy of a “veritable Copernican revolution” in which the colonized peoples of the world would wrest their “right to initiative…which is, at the end of the day, the right to personality” from their would-be “progressive” European leaders, not only stands out for its political integrity, but today serves as a useful reminder to those who for one reason or another wish to play down the destructive historical role of Communism in stifling or manipulating revolt.

6.         The recent revival of interest in Negritude among Francophone rappers, complete with shout-outs to Césaire from MCs like Youssoupha and Abd el Malik, and the more generalized, inchoate discontent among Black youth that has inspired and sustained their emergence, serves as a confirmation of Césaire’s words to Haitian poet René Depestre: “[I]f someone asks me what my conception of Negritude is, I answer that above all it is a concrete rather than an abstract coming to consciousness.” In this regard, it is worth underscoring the continued relevance of Césaire’s question in the inaugural (April 1941) issue of the journal Tropiques: “What has the youth been offered during these last fifty years?  Positions.  Trades.  Words.  Not one feeling.  Not one idea. […] I tell you we are choking.”  At present, when so many youths in the French-speaking world and beyond are not even offered positions or trades, only words of dismissive contempt, the sense of asphyxiation of which Césaire speaks must be all the more acute.


☞ See the counter-response by Carrie Noland and/or leave your own response below!


4 thoughts on “Incurable Thirst: Six Theses for Aimé Césaire

  • Beautifully written Christopher. I hope we can take up the question we began to discuss a few week ago at CUNY about how Césaire’s concern with hastening the “advent of man” entailed the kind of volcanic and apocalyptic ruptures you discuss above as well as a politics of patience, taking the long view, conjugating the seemingly modest victory with the transformative ambition etc.

    • Gary, it was wonderful to be in the presence of your “parole,” both at the Graduate Center and at the (virtual and embodied) conference. Césaire summed up the dialectic you describe above with his line “la force de regarder demain.” Or, as the US civil rights song put it so eloquently, “Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on, hold on.”

  • Thanks for this eloquent, passionate and thorough summary. I’m sorry I can’t attend your talk.

    What struck the most was when you state ‘Césaire identifies himself with the elemental geophysical forces of continental drift, the grinding of tectonic plates, which have shaped his native Caribbean, turning a bridge between continents into a chain of islands that remain at the mercy of earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. But Césaire aims at the End of a very specific world: “the white world / horribly weary from its immense efforts” of enslavement and colonizing “thingification” under the rhetoric of the civilizing mission.’

    These geological impressions were amazingly similar to those of Victor Serge, the Franco-Russian revolutionary novelist, in 1941 upon discovering Dominica, Haiti and Cuba on route to his final exile in Mexico.Tropical images of volcanoes, earthquacks, hurricanes and floods are central to his late works including the as yet untranslated ‘Le Séisme,’ Unforgiving Years, and his recently discovered Carnets (notebooks). In all these work these natural upheavals are considered in the context of the indigeous culture, in geological terms and as embematic of the political upheavals of the period of totalitarianism and total war. Indeed, Serge originally titled his most famous novel (The Case of Comrade Tulayev) ‘the earth began to tremble…’ In 1941 Serge and Césaire were both in touch with André Breton and the surrealist painters like Wilfredo Lam. Is there any evidence they knew of each other???

    • While of course Serge and Breton (and Masson, and Lévi-Strauss, and Lam) were all on the same ship “Capitaine Paul-Lemerle” that docked in Vichy-ruled Martinique “au temps de l’amiral Robert,” I don’t have any firm knowledge that Césaire and Serge knew of each other, though as Richard points out, their visions of island-catastrophe do converge (cf. also Victor Serge’s writings on earthquakes and the eruption of the Paricutín volcano during his years in Mexico). Though circumstantially, it’s quite likely that at least Serge knew of Césaire’s work through Octavio Paz, whom he met in Mexico and who many years later spoke of Serge as a crucial inspiration (and the man who turned him on to Henri Michaux); thanks to Alex Gil, who kindly sent me a PDF of the issue of “Volontés” in which Césaire’s first version of the “Cahier” appeared, I learned that poetry by Paz was also featured in that issue, along with León Felipe, César Vallejo, and Miguel Otero Silva. Could Paz have shown Serge a copy of that issue? Whether Césaire ever read Serge is also unknown to me.

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