From the Archive | A Poetics of Anticolonialism

Robin DG Kelley considers surrealism in Aimé Césaire’s work, which shows colonialism required the destruction of the colonised’s past – what Césaire called ‘thingification’.

This excerpt is taken from an essay published on 1 November 1999 by American historian and academic Robin DG Kelley. It forms part of the introduction to the new edition of Discourse on Colonialism by Aimé Césaire (Monthly Review Press, 2000), the Martinican intellectual who co-founded the Negritude movement in Francophone literature. 

Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism might be best described as a declaration of war. I would almost call it a “third world manifesto,” but hesitate because it is primarily a polemic against the old order bereft of the kind of propositions and proposals that generally accompany manifestos. Yet, Discourse speaks in revolutionary cadences, capturing the spirit of its age just as Marx and Engels did 102 years earlier in their little manifesto. First published in 1950 as Discours sur le Colonialisme, it appeared just as the old empires were on the verge of collapse, thanks in part to a world war against fascism that left Europe in material, spiritual and philosophical shambles. It was the age of decolonisation and revolt in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Five years earlier, in 1945, black people from around the globe gathered in Manchester, England, for the Fifth Pan-African Congress to discuss the freedom and future of Africa. Five years later, in 1955, representatives from the Non-Aligned Nations gathered in Bandung, Indonesia, to discuss the freedom and future of the third world. Mao’s revolution in China was a year old, while the Mau Mau in Kenya were just gearing up for an uprising against their colonial masters. The French encountered insurrections in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Cameroon and Madagascar, and suffered a humiliating defeat by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. Revolt was in the air. India, the Philippines, Guyana, Egypt, Guatemala, South Africa, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Harlem, you name it. Revolt! Malcolm X once described this extraordinary moment, this long decade from the end of the Second World War to the late 1950s, as a “tidal wave of colour.”

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Discourse on Colonialism is indisputably one of the key texts in this “tidal wave” of anticolonial literature produced during the postwar period – works that include WEB Du Bois’s Color and Democracy (1945) and The World and Africa (1947), Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952), George Padmore’s Pan-Africanism or Communism?: The Coming Struggle for Africa (1956), Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957), Richard Wright’s White Man Listen! (1957), Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay “Black Orpheus” (1948), and journals such as Présence Africaine and African Revolution. As with much of the radical literature produced during this epoch, Discourse places the colonial question front and centre. Although Césaire, remaining somewhat true to his communist affiliation, never quite dethrones the modern proletariat from its exalted status as a revolutionary force, the European working class is practically invisible. This is a book about colonialism, its impact on the colonised, on culture, on history, on the very concept of civilisation itself, and most importantly, on the coloniser. In the finest Hegelian fashion, Césaire demonstrates how colonialism works to “decivilise” the coloniser: torture, violence, race hatred and immorality constitute a dead weight on the so-called civilised, pulling the master class deeper and deeper into the abyss of barbarism. The instruments of colonial power rely on barbaric, brutal violence and intimidation, and the end result is the degradation of Europe itself. Hence Césaire can only scream: “Europe is indefensible”.

Europe is also dependent. Anticipating Fanon’s famous proposition that “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World”, Césaire reveals, over and over again, that the colonisers’ sense of superiority, their sense of mission as the world’s civilisers, depends on turning the Other into a barbarian. The Africans, the Indians, the Asians cannot possess civilisation or a culture equal to that of the imperialists, or the latter have no purpose, no justification for the exploitation and domination of the rest of the world. The colonial encounter, in other words, requires a reinvention of the colonised, the deliberate destruction of her past – what Césaire calls “thingification”. Discourse, then, has a double-edged meaning: it is Césaire’s discourse on the material and spiritual havoc created by colonialism, and it is a critique of colonial discourse. Anticipating the explosion of work we now call “postcolonial studies”, Césaire’s critique of figures such as Dominique O Mannoni, Roger Caillois, Ernest Renan, Yves Florenne and Jules Romaine, among others, reveals how the circulation of colonial ideology – an ideology of racial and cultural hierarchy – is as essential to colonial rule as police and corvée labour.

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Surprisingly, few assessments of postcolonial criticism pay much attention to Discourse, besides mentioning it in a litany of “pioneering” works without bothering to elaborate on its contents. Robert Young’s White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (1990) dates the origins of postcolonial studies to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, despite the fact that some of the arguments in Fanon were already present in Discourse. On the other hand, literary critics tend to skip over Discourse or dismiss it as an anomaly born of Césaire’s 11-year stint as a member of the Communist Party of Martinique. It has been read in terms of whether it conforms to or breaks from “Marxist orthodoxy”. I want to suggest that Discourse made some critical contributions to our thinking about colonialism, fascism and revolution. First, its recasting of the history of Western civilisation helps us locate the origins of fascism within colonialism itself; hence, within the very traditions of humanism, critics believed fascism threatened. Second, Césaire was neither confused about Marxism nor masquerading as a Marxist when he wrote Discourse. On the contrary, he was attempting to revise Marx, along the lines of his predecessors such as WEB Du Bois and MN Roy, by suggesting that the anticolonial struggle supersedes the proletarian revolution as the fundamental historical movement of the period. The implications are enormous: the coming revolution was not posed in terms of capitalism versus socialism (the very last paragraph notwithstanding, but we shall return to this later), but in terms of the complete and total overthrow of a racist, colonialist system that would open the way to imagine a whole new world.

What such a world might look like is never spelled out, but that brings me to the final point about Discourse: it should be read as a surrealist text, perhaps even an unintended synthesis of Césaire’s understanding of poetry (via Rimbaud) as revolt and his re-vision of historical materialism. For all of his Marxist criticism and Négritudian assertion, Césaire’s text plumbs the depths of the unconscious so that we might comprehend colonialism through his entire being. It is full of flares, full of anger, full of humour. It is not a solution or a strategy or a manual or a little red book with pithy quotes. It is a dancing flame in a bonfire.

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Aimé Césaire’s credentials as colonial critic are impeccable. Born on 26 June 1913, in the small town of Bass-Pointe, Martinique, he and his five siblings were raised by a mother who was a dressmaker and a father who held a post as the local tax inspector. Although their father was well-educated and they shared the cultural sensibilities of the petit-bourgeois, the Césaires nonetheless lived close to the edge of rural poverty. Aimé turned out to be a brilliant, precocious student and, at age 11, was admitted to the Lycée Schoelcher in Fort-de-France. There he met Léon-Gontran Damas from Guiana, one of his childhood soccer-mates (who would go on to collaborate with Césaire and Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor in launching the Négritude movement). Césaire graduated from the Lycée in 1931 and took prizes in French, Latin, English and history. Unlike many of his colleagues, he could not wait to leave home for the mother country – France. “I was not at ease in the Antillean world,” he recalled. That would change during his eight-year stay in Paris.

Once settled in Paris, he enrolled at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand to prepare for the grueling entrance exams to get into the École Normale Superieure. There he met a number of like-minded intellectuals, most notably Senghor. Meeting Senghor, and another Senegalese intellectual, Ousman Soce, inspired in Césaire an interest in Africa, and their collaborations eventually gave birth to the concept of Négritude. There were other black diasporic intellectual circles in Paris at the time, notably the group surrounding the Nardal sisters of Martinique (Paulette, Jane, and Andrée), who ran a salon out of which came La Revue de Monde Noir, edited by Paulette Nardal and Léo Sajous. Another circle of Martinican students, consisting mainly of Etienne Lero, René Ménil, JM Monnerot, and Pierre and Simone Yoyotte, joined together to declare their commitment to surrealism and communist revolution. In their one and only issue of Légitime Défense, published in 1932, they excoriated the French-speaking black bourgeoisie, attacked the servility of most West Indian literature, celebrated several black US writers like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, and denounced racism (paying special attention to the Scottsboro case). Césaire knew about the Nardal sisters’ salon but found it entirely “too bourgeois” for his tastes. And though he had read Légitime Défense, he considered the group too assimilated: “There was nothing to distinguish them either from the French surrealists or the French communists. In other words, their poems were colourless.”

Césaire, Senghor, Léon Damas and others were part of a different intellectual circle that centred around a journal called L’Étudiant Noir. In its March 1935 issue, Césaire published a passionate tract against assimilation, in which he first coined the term “Négritude”. It is more than ironic that at the moment Césaire’s piece appeared, he was hard at work absorbing as much French and European humanities as possible in preparation for his entrance exams for L’École Normale Superieure. The exams took their toll, for sure, though the psychic and emotional costs of having to imbibe the very culture Césaire publicly rejected must have exacerbated an already exhausting regimen. After completing his exams during the summer of 1935, he took a short vacation to Yugoslavia with a fellow student. While visiting the Adriatic coast, Césaire was overcome with memories of home after seeing a small island from a distance. Moved, he stayed up half the night working on a long poem about the Martinique of his youth – the land, the people, the majesty of the place. The next morning when he inquired about the little island, he was told it was called Martinska. A magical chance encounter, to say the least, the words he penned that moonlit night were the beginnings of what would subsequently become his most famous poem of all: Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land). The next summer he did return to Martinique, but was greeted by an even greater sense of alienation. He returned to France to complete his thesis on African-American writers of the Harlem Renaissance and their representations of the South, and then, on 10 July 1937, married Suzanne Roussy, a fellow Martinican student with whom he had worked on L’Étudiant Noir.

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The couple returned to Martinique in 1939 and began teaching in Fort-de-France. Joining forces with René Ménil, Lucie Thesée, Aristide Maugée, Georges Gratiant and others, they launched a journal called Tropiques. The appearance of Tropiques coincided with the fall of France to the fascist Vichy regime, which consequently put the colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guiana under Vichy rule. The effect was startling; any illusions Césaire and his comrades might have harboured about colourblind French brotherhood were shattered when thousands of French sailors arrived on the island. Their racism was blatant and direct. As literary critic A James Arnold observed, “The insensitivity of this military regime also made it difficult for Martinicans to ignore the fact that they were a colony like any other, a conclusion that the official policy of assimilation had masked somewhat. These conditions contributed to radicalising Césaire and his friends, preparing them for a more anticolonialist posture at the end of the war.” The official policy of the regime to censor Tropiques and interdict the publication when it was deemed subversive also hastened the group’s radicalisation. In a notorious letter dated 10 May 1943, Martinique’s Chief of Information Services, Lt de Vaisseau Bayle, justified interdicting Tropiques for being “a revolutionary review that is racial and sectarian”. Bayle accused the editors of poisoning the spirit of society, sowing hatred and ruining the morale of the country. Two days later, the editors penned a brilliant polemical response:

To Lieutenant de Vaisseau Bayle:

Sir, We have received your indictment of Tropiques.

“Racists”, “sectarians”, “revolutionaries”, “ingrates and traitors to the country”, “poisoners of souls”, none of these epithets really repulses us. “Poisoners of Souls”, like Racine… “Ingrates and traitors to our good Country”, like Zola… “Revolutionaries”, like the Hugo of “Châtiments”. “Sectarians”, passionately, like Rimbaud and Lautréamont. Racists, yes. Of the racism of Toussaint Louverture, of Claude McKay and Langston Hughes against that of Drumont and Hitler. As to the rest of it, don’t expect for us to plead our case, nor vain recriminations, nor discussion. We do not speak the same language.

Signed: Aimé Césaire, Suzanne Césaire, Georges Gratiant, Aristide Maugée, René Ménil, Lucie Thesée.

But in order for Tropiques to survive, they had to camouflage their boldness, passing it off as a journal of West Indian folklore. Yet, despite the repressions and the ruses, Tropiques survived the war as one of the most important and radical surrealist publications in the world. Lasting from 1941 to 1945, the essays and poems it published (by the Césaires, René Ménil and others) reveal the evolution of a sophisticated anticolonial stance, as well as a vision of a postcolonial future. Theirs was a vision of freedom that drew on modernism and a deep appreciation for pre-colonial African modes of thought and practice; it drew on surrealism as the strategy of revolution of the mind and Marxism as revolution of the productive forces. It was an effort to carve out a position independent of all of these forces, a kind of wedding of Négritude, Marxism and surrealism, and their collective efforts would have a profound impact on international surrealism, in general, and on André Breton, in particular. Tropiques also published Breton, as well as texts by Pierre Mabille, Benjamin Peret and other surrealists. In fact, it is not too much to proclaim Suzanne Césaire as one of surrealism’s most original theorists. Unlike critics who boxed surrealism into narrow “avant garde” tendencies such as futurism or cubism, Suzanne Césaire linked it to broader movements such as romanticism, socialism and Négritude. Surrealism, she argued, was not an ideology as such but a state of mind, a “permanent readiness for the marvelous”. In a 1941 issue of Tropiques, she imagined new possibilities in terms that were foreign to Marxists; she called on readers to embrace “the domain of the strange, the marvelous and the fantastic, a domain scorned by people of certain inclinations. Here is the freed image, dazzling and beautiful, with a beauty that could not be more unexpected and overwhelming. Here are the poet, the painter, and the artist, presiding over the metamorphoses and the inversions of the world under the sign of hallucination and madness.” And yet, when she speaks of the domain of the marvelous, she has her sights on the chains of colonial domination, never forgetting the crushing reality of everyday life in Martinique and the rest of the world. In “Surrealism and Us: 1943”, she writes with a boldness and clarity that would come to characterise her husband’s Discourse on Colonialism:

Thus, far from contradicting, diluting, or diverting our revolutionary attitude toward life, surrealism strengthens it. It nourishes an impatient strength within us, endlessly reinforcing the massive army of refusals.

And I am also thinking of tomorrow.

Millions of black hands will hoist their terror across the furious skies of world war. Freed from a long benumbing slumber, the most disinherited of all peoples will rise up from plains of ashes.

Our surrealism will supply this rising people with a punch from its very depths. Our surrealism will enable us to finally transcend the sordid antinomies of the present: whites/blacks, Europeans/Africans, civilised/savages – at last rediscovering the magic power of the mahoulis, drawn directly from living sources. Colonial idiocy will be purified in the welder’s blue flame. We shall recover our value as metal, our cutting edge of steel, our unprecedented communions.

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Although the influence of surrealism on Aimé Césaire has been called into question recently, the question of his surrealism is usually posed in terms of André Breton’s influence on Césaire. Surrealism in this context is treated as “European thought”, and like Marxism, considered foreign to non-European traditions. But this sort of “diffusionist” interpretation leaves no room for the Césaires (both Aimé and Suzanne) to be innovators of surrealism, to have introduced fresh ideas to Breton and his colleagues. I want to suggest that the Césaires not only embraced surrealism – independently of the Paris Group, I might add – but opened new vistas and contributed enormously to theorising the “domain of the marvelous”.

Aimé Césaire, after all, has never denied his surrealist leanings. As he explains in an interview: “Surrealism provided me with what I had been confusedly searching for. I have accepted it joyfully because in it I have found more of a confirmation than a revelation.” Surrealism, he explained, helped him to summon up powerful unconscious forces. “This, for me, was a call to Africa. I said to myself: it’s true that superficially we are French, we bear the marks of French customs; we have been branded by Cartesian philosophy, by French rhetoric; but if we break with all that, if we plumb the depths, then what we will find is fundamentally black.”

Correction, 5 March 2020: The caption was amended to clarify that although Césaire wrote in French, but he wasn’t French.

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