“Making Diamonds out of Insults”

Rejoinder by Christopher Winks

[Prompt: Transatlantic Networks and Contexts]


From her wide-ranging “experiment in sequestration” made possible by that modern-day Library of Babel, the Internet, and necessitated by her compassion and care for her hospitalized mother, Carrie Noland generously bestows on us – on me in particular, as her admiring interlocutor – insights on Aimé Césaire’s handwriting/handiwork (“And be the tree of our hands!! / It turns, for all, the wounds cut / in its trunk” – Notebook); and most eloquently on the material poverty, both the island’s, blasted by centuries of slavery and colonialism, and Césaire’s own childhood privations in Basse-Point and student penury in Paris, out of which his parole is wrested. I’d like to discuss, in the spirit of blues and jazz counter-statement, some of the points she makes in this regard.

As this discussion ostensibly centers on trans-Atlantic networks in Césaire’s work, I’ll begin with a point of seeming contention: that Césaire “would have found little to inspire his own treatment [of poverty]” in the work of Baudelaire (whom he praises in “Poetry and Knowledge” for delivering French writing from the stifling grip of prose), Rimbaud (whose “Le Bateau ivre” resonates throughout sections of the Notebook), and Lautréamont (to whom he devoted an essay in Tropiques and a crucial section of the Discourse on Colonialism). Aside from the biographical fact that all three of these poetic precursors experienced genuine poverty at some point in their lives – I’m sure that Ducasse/Lautréamont died of it – I don’t see any prurience in such poems of Baudelaire as “Le Vin des chiffoniers,” let alone “Assommons les pauvres!” Where Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror is concerned, Césaire notes “its implacable denunciation of a very particular form of [bourgeois, hence colonial – CW] society.”  And Rimbaud provided Césaire – as did the Surrealists – with an example of an uncompromising rhetoric composed in equal measure of revolt, intransigence, and invective. I’ve never been much for the Harold Bloom “anxiety of influence” theory, so rather than see in this a case of avant-garde bovarysme (for which he faulted Etienne Léro’s surréalisant poetry), I see Césaire’s appropriation of his French literary precursors (which would also include the grandiose, often bombastic verses of the arch-Catholic Paul Claudel) as both détournement and dépassement.

But closer to home, so to speak, in space and time, there is the example of Guianese poet Léon-Gontran Damas, Césaire’s old school chum from the Lycée Schoelcher and the author of the opening salvo of the Negritude movement: Pigments, published in 1937. Damas lived a hand-to-mouth existence in Paris without even any student bourse, having been cut off by his family and compelled to work at low-paying jobs. “Un clochard m’a demandé dix sous” (“A Tramp Asked Me for a Dime”) is an outcry against his own hunger in the metropole: “Moi aussi j’ai eu faim dans ce sacre foutu pays” (“Me, I’ve also gone hungry in this goddamned fucked-up country”).  In a tribute to his comrade that references Baudelaire, Césaire declared that Damas’s work articulated both “Spleen” and “Ideal,” and Damas spoke in an interview of a morning when Césaire knocked on his door and read him the first draft of the Notebook, preceding it with the remark, “You’ll see how much I’ve been influenced by you.”

It’s worth noting that Pigments was prefaced by the erstwhile Surrealist poet Robert Desnos. In fact, although Carrie is more cautious about this, I am sure that Césaire’s acquaintance with Surrealism during his sojourn in Paris was more than simply casual. It was in the Parisian air at this time; 1935, the year in which Césaire joined the Union de la jeunesse communiste chapter at the ENS, also saw the International Congress of Writers in Defense of Culture, marked by stormy polemics between Stalinists and dissident Communists.  More than that, this was an era and a place where people in the arts, no matter their land of origin, felt compelled to keep up with what was happening, politically and culturally. And Communism did provide a kind of “intellectual International,” however sullied by complicity with the crimes of Stalinism and the diktats of socialist realism (not always honored, obviously), which put writers and artists throughout the world in touch with each other. This said, the fact that Césaire met with Breton in Martinique in the first place, and never ceased to speak positively about their encounter, aroused the displeasure of PCF capo Maurice Thorez, who spoke behind Césaire’s back of his “Trotskyist” acquaintances.

Carrie’s main point is to read the Notebook as a “poem about poverty.” I confess to not yet having read the recently published translation of the first (1939) version. I would agree that it is not a “Communist poem,” even in its later version, if by “Communist poem” is meant something hortatory and cause-bound (Césaire already had Communist affiliations by the time he published the first version of the Notebook, and would maintain these, with relative orthodoxy, until 1956). Part of the Notebook‘s power lies precisely in its juxtaposition of, or oscillation between, poverty and plenitude (the Christmas celebration with the “liquid sun of rums,” not the “eau de mort guildive” whose hazy, numbing effects the Martinican Vincent Placoly would convey so astonishingly in his novel of the same title), of the “Antilles dynamited by alcohol” and the volcanic explosion after which “nothing will be left but a tepid bubbling pecked at by sea birds”…and its conjuring of plenitude out of poverty (the destruction of the slave ship near the end). “Raw, graceless poverty” there certainly is – the befouled beaches, the crowd detached from its “cry,” the rats scrabbling in the walls of his childhood house. But still the land, rendered in erotic imagery, is “restored to his gourmandise.” And even the “cruel little house whose demands panic the ends of our months” is also the place where his mother “pedals for our hunger and day and night,” an image which moved the young René Depestre to tears when he first read it, because his mother had to do the same work, also on a Singer sewing machine, in order to put food on the table.

Nowhere is the destructive ignorance perpetrated by colonial education more starkly and insistently presented than in the image of the hungry child berated by schoolteachers for not knowing about “Queen Blanche of Castile,” whose famine becomes consubstantial with the devastation of the landscape itself: “a hunger buried in the depths of this Hunger of this famished morne.” Yet the poet himself, to his ultimate horror and self-loathing, finds himself sneering at a wretched black man on a Paris streetcar whom “poverty, without question, had knocked itself out to finish…off.” Poor as Césaire doubtless was while studying at the elite ENS, he likely wore jacket and tie and moved in the circles of “declassed” Black Parisian student bohemia, basking in the illusions he denounces as resulting from the “three centuries which uphold my civil rights and my minimized blood.” He has to “rediscover” his own complicity with respect to the poverty he denounces.

Césaire transmutes hunger and poverty into, respectively, the “universal hunger…universal thirst” out of which will come “the succulence of fruit,” and the human wealth that comes from those who are “indifferent to conquering, but playing the game of the world.” I would argue that this is indeed a dialectical move, on the order of “We have been naught, we shall be all.”

Carrie speaks movingly of Césaire’s “recognition that such an experience [of hunger] might serve as the basis of solidarity.” Here I cannot forget one of my former students, Aruna Premi, for whom the Discourse on Colonialism and subsequently the Notebook became important texts in her intellectual evolution (she carried the Discourse with her everywhere as a kind of vademecum, and told me that she kept Césaire’s collected poetry by her bedside). She’d experienced hunger, privation, and abuse of various kinds, and in Césaire she found a voice through which she could struggle towards a transcendence of her condition. I conclude with her words from an in-class presentation: “As the late Aimé Césaire declared, ‘I’ve always had the feeling that I was on a quest to re-conquer something, my name, my country or myself. That is why my approach has in essence always been poetic. Because it seems to me that in a way that’s what poetry is: the re-conquest of the self by the self….’ Indeed, Aimé Césaire, you have re-conquered something, but it is far more than the self, you have re-conquered and rekindled the life, culture and identity of the whole Caribbean.”


☞ Please leave your response below!


10 thoughts on ““Making Diamonds out of Insults”

  • Thank you both for such illuminating pieces. You managed to squeeze quite a lot of resources into your short pieces while still providing us non-Cesaire scholars with enough context to grasp the contributions you’re making to readings of his work. Given the prompt – “Transatlantic Networks and Contexts” – and the discussion of poverty, I thought I might add some words from Walcott that kept running through my mind as I read your pieces, particularly Carrie Noland’s piece and Christopher’s rejoinder. From “What the twilight Says: An Overture” in Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays: “Colonials, we began with this malarial enervation: that nothing could ever be built among these rotting shacks, barefooted backyards and moulting shingles; that being poor, we already had the theatre of our lives. So the self-inflicted role of martyr came naturally, the melodramatic believe that one was message-bearer for the millennium…” (4). There’s more from that essay that could be quoted here, but that section seems just right for a discussion of Cesaire’s legacies.

    Looking forward to the live forum next Friday.

    • To Kelly’s pertinent quotation from Walcott I would also add Kamau Brathwaite’s trilogy “The Arrivants,” particularly the opening “Rights of Passage,” which explicitly and frequently references Césaire’s Cahier: (e.g., “For we / who have cre- // ated nothing, / must exist // on nothing; / cannot see // the soil: / good // earth, God’s / earth. with- // out that fixed / locked mem- // ory of love- / less toil, // strength des- / troyed, chained // to the sun / like a snail // to its shell / and the hatred // it dragged / in its trail” [Postlude/Home, 79]). See also Brathwaite’s “Black + Blues.”

      Walcott’s “message-bearers for the millennium,” far from “melodramatic” (do I detect a touch of what could be called, doubtless to Walcott’s displeasure, Naipaulian disdain here?), are close kin to Césaire’s poetic “I” in the “Cahier”: “je ne joue jamais si ce n’est à l’an mil.”

  • A very illuminating piece, indeed. I’ve certainly recognized in Notebook a kind of dehumanization of man through images of poverty. I love the image of the “universal hunger” which puts into perspective Césaire’s notions of humanism which seems to be defined by a people’s relationship to the rest of the world. Thank you!

    • As a further note to your observation, Michael, here is a quote from Césaire’s seminal essay “Poetry and Knowledge” as translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith: “Within us, all the ages of mankind. Within us, all humankind. Within us, animal, vegetable, mineral. Mankind is not only mankind. It is *universe*.” And later in the essay, his “Third Proposition” declares: “Poetic knowledge is characterized by humankind spattering the object with all its mobilized richness.”

  • Cesaire’s complex vision of poverty will increasingly resonate with Western cultures which are experiencing greater amounts of poverty and instability than their older members ever expected to see in their lifetimes, and the former solutions continue to fail. As such his voice may be more visionary than he himself ever imagined.

  • And likewise, those in the “West” (and elsewhere) who are facing the impoverishment that Betty identifies will have to come to terms with the question Césaire asked in his poem “Hors des jours étrangers” (first published in 1950, later reprinted in slightly modified form in “Ferrements”): “my people // when / out of alien days / on reknotted shoulders will you sprout a head really your own / and your word // … // when / when will you cease to be the dark toy / in the carnival of others / or in another’s field / the obsolete scarecrow”.

  • Thanks, Carrie, for your wonderful reflection on how poverty operates in the poem, and, Christopher, for your moving rejoinder.

    In teaching the poem this semester, and thus re-reading it–the new bilingual 1939 edition, in fact–I, too, was struck much more powerfully by the attempt to depict poverty. I am compelled, too, by the focus James Arnold gives in his introduction to the highly personal transformation that the poem traces. In my response, I want to try to tease out the connection between on the one hand this poverty and personal transformation, with, on the other, Haiti, Toussaint, and negritude.

    It struck me more than before that there is something important and perhaps underexplored in the timing/placement of Cesaire’s oft-cited line, “Haiti, ou la negritude se mit debout pour la premiere fois (Haiti, where negritude rose for the first time).” This is within what Arnold identifies as the first sequence, prior to the powerful confrontation that is the centerpiece of the second sequence, the turning point in which the poem’s narrator hands the reader his shame before the black man swallowed up by abject poverty and by anti-black racism (which scene Christopher mentions). But if this is a turning point, what does it mean that the poet-narrator invokes Haiti and Toussaint and a certain type of negritude before this turning point?

    The transformation in the third sequence happens after the confrontation with the black man on the streetcar, towards the repeated “J’accepte”: I accept that black man on the streetcar, the narrator seems to imply, the black man I had previously disavowed because his wretchedness offended me (or made me ashamed). And this acceptance follows after a new sense of “negritude,” a repetition that catalogs negritude first by what it is not before affirming what it is. The looming question is: which type of negritude stands up with Haiti in the first sequence? Or, more to the point, how does the poet-narrator’s invocation of Haiti’s inaugural negritude fit within this transformation? My initial thought is to return to the “when”–in the dialectical arc of the poem–Haiti shows up, namely in the first sequence, prior to the transformation. This suggests to me that the narrator’s invocation of Haiti and its inaugural negritude is romantic, perhaps immature, as yet untested by his confrontation with the man on the streetcar, in this way the thesis for which the wretchedness of the black man serves as antithesis. The larger question, then, returns me to Gary’s point in one of the other discussion threads about “the understandable fascination among academics and activists with the Haitian Revolution.” What does this poem do to that “fascination”?

    • Raj, this is a most welcome post, because you insist on the Cahier as a poem of process — a process that lasts even past the final “explosant-fixe” neologism “verrition,” which comes after a declaration of future intent: “…the great black hole where a moon ago I wanted to drown / it is there I will now fish the malevolent tongue of the night in its motionless veerition.” (Incidentally, the entirety of the poem’s movement is summed up in that changing perspective on the “black hole” — from black hole to black whole, from suicidal misery, which surely beset him in Paris as he walked past the Seine where so many had drowned themselves in despair, to the exploration of the dark matter of the universe).

      Again, I have yet to read the 1939 Volontés version…but the first mention of Haiti in the poem forms part of a panoramic overflight of the Caribbean: “what is mine,” a “bilan,” But the poet cannot just take account (he’ll mock this later with “Trésor, comptons”), he must go deeper. Haiti is a beacon, a precursor, a negation of slavery’s negation, but he cannot linger on it, or idealize it. (Césaire’s later play “La tragédie du Roi Christophe” shows how attuned he was to the complexity of the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath — it is the most Shakespearian of Caribbean theatrical works.)

      Regarding turning points in the poem, I always saw the line “Mais quel étrange orgeuil tout soudain m’illumine?” — an alexandrin that could have been written by Racine — as the crucial pivot, ushering in a rush of summoned images.

  • Thank you Christopher. Your sensitivity to the linguistic and conceptual dynamics in The Cahier and Césaire’s poetry generally is acute and helpful. I wholly agree about the dialectic of poverty and plenitude at work here. As well as his serious embrace of Rimbaud, Baudelaire etc. … if also in the form of détournement and dépassement. To my mind Césaire was a dialectical thinker, which neither means that he was some kind of teleological Hegelian nor a Communist Party ideologue.

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