The passionate, lyrical voice of the poet from Martinique was part of a lifework that embrace négritude, Marxism and surrealism all in one, says Nira Wickramasinghe.
(This article was first published on 21 April 2008)
"Poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge" (Aimé Césaire)
Aimé Césaire died on 17 April 2008 in Fort-de-France on the French Caribbean island of Martinique at the ripe age of 94. His life and political choices are truly captured in his friend and surrealist writer André Breton's words: Césaire was the "prototype of dignity".
But, like most brilliantly creative men, he had more than one incarnation. Throughout his long life, Césaire contained the multiple identities of surrealist poet, political playwright, intellectual engagé, politician and anti-colonial crusader.
Aimé Césaire was born on 26 June 1913 in the small town of Basse Pointe in Martinique to a lower-middle-class family. He displayed early brilliance and was admitted at the age of 11 to the Lycee Schoelcher in Fort-de-France. After moving to Paris, and studying in the prestigious Lycee Louis Le Grand, he prepared for the competitive entrance exam of the elite École normale supérieure. During this period, many African and Caribbean intellectuals had been recruited under the French colonial policy of assimilation to study at metropolitan universities. The years Aimé Césaire spent in Paris were formative in many ways. There he absorbed French culture, European humanities and learned Latin and Greek; but he also befriended the Senegalese intellectual Léopold Sédar Senghor (with whom he began to study African history and culture), and was exposed in Paris to influences from African-American movements such as the Harlem renaissance.
In this intellectually ebullient climate Césaire and Senghor (together with Césaire's childhood friend Léon-Gontran Damas) launched a journal called L'Etudiant Noir (The Black Student) featuring the works of writers from Africa and the Caribbean. The concept of "négritude" - defined as the "affirmation that one is black and proud of it" - was coined by them in the first issue of the journal, although credit is generally ascribed to Senghor alone. Négritude blossomed into a political, philosophical and literary theory that would have repercussions all over the world.
Nira Wickramasinghe is a professor in the department of history and international relations, the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. She grew up in Paris and studied at the Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne and at Oxford University, where she earned her doctorate Among her books are Civil Society in Sri Lanka: New Circles of Power (New Delhi, Thousand Oaks/ Sage, 2001); Dressing the Colonised Body: Politics, Clothing and Identity in Colonial Sri Lanka (New Delhi, Orient Longman, 2003); and Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities (C Hurst and University of Hawaii Press, 2006).
Also by Nira Wickramasinghe in openDemocracy:
"Sri Lanka: the politics of purity" (17 November 2006)
"Multiculturalism: a view from Sri Lanka" (30 May 2007)
A return to source
Much of Césaire's later work revolved around the theme of restoring the cultural identity of black Africans. Critiques of négritude have pointed to the essentialism and nativism inherent in the idea that all people of negro descent shared certain inalienable essential characteristics. But négritude went beyond the race-based assertions of African dignity of WEB du Bois or Marcus Garvey, in that it attempted to extend perceptions of the negro as possessing a distinctive personality in all spheres of life, intellectual, emotional and physical. Within the négritude stream, Césaire's life and oeuvre was special and different in its attempt to embrace négritude, Marxism and surrealism all in one.
In the early 1940s Aimé Césaire and his wife Suzanne Roussy (Roussi) returned to Martinique and took up teaching posts in Fort-de- France. With other colleagues and friends they launched a new journal called Tropiques. This became a major voice for surrealism which they perceived as the strategy for revolution and emancipation of the mind. Césaire's most renowned works, Les Armes Miraculeuses (Miraculous Weapons) and Soleil cou coupé (Beheaded sun), embraced both surrealism and négritude. But it was his Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal (1939) that brought him fame and led André Breton to describe it as the "the greatest lyrical monument of our time". This epic poem depicts in symbolic imagery the degradation of black people and describes the rediscovery of an African sense of self. It provided the all important starting-point for the claiming of a black Caribbean identity.
By the end of the second world war, Césaire - like many young intellectuals of the time - joined the French Communist Party (PCF). He took an active interest in politics, running successfully for mayor of Fort-de-France and was for decades deputy to the French national assembly. He was instrumental in the change of status of the former colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guinea, and Reunion from colony to départements within the French republic. In 1956 he broke away from the Communist Party partly because of its unwillingness to condemn the Soviet Union's intervention in Hungary and partly because of the privileging of proletarian revolution over anti-colonial struggles. Thus while many communist intellectuals in France remained mute, Césaire took a principled stand. He later created his own political formation, the Martinique Progressive Party, and openly supported the candidature of Ségolène Royal in the 2007 presidential election.
Césaire's writings and politics had a deep impact on the francophone colonised world. His Discourse on Colonialism (1950), less known than the writings of his former student Frantz Fanon, argued subtly that colonialism affected the colonised as as much as the coloniser who was dehumanised through the practice of torture and violence. It dealt with issues that would be taken up by postcolonial thinkers in the later 20th century: the importance of an ideology of race and culture that sustained colonial rule anticipated the idea that colonialism is also domination through knowledge. He believed that a revolt of the tiers monde was the only path possible for the creation of a just world.
His later works on colonialism were grounded in history. He wrote about Toussaint L'Ouverture's heroic attempt at revolution, about Patrice Lumumba's struggle in the Congo and finally adapted Shakespeare's Tempest to explore the relation between coloniser and colonised. Reading him is a caution against today's tendency to read colonialism as an encounter between cultures or the creation of contact-zones. Reading him serves as a reminder that colonialism was essentially humiliation and pain.
Aimé Césaire never lost his dignity and as a intellectual engagé always took a principled stand, critiquing in the same vein all the avatars of modernity from Marxism to nationalism and colonialism with the trenchant weapon of poetry. He leaves us beautiful words reminiscent of some of Mallarmé's poems, complex and demanding yet conveying a piercing sensation of beauty and depth.