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NOTEBOOK OF A RETURN TO THE NATIVE LAND
In August 1939, Paris readers of the avant-garde literary magazine Volontés opened issue 20 to find a long poem by a student who had just left the École Normale Supérieure to return to Martinique. Aimé Césaire's "Cahier d'un retour au pays natal" ("Notebook of a Return to the Native Land") was laid out in 109 stanzas in four sequences of mixed prose and verse. The rhythms of the stanzas recalled the long lines Paul Claudel had pioneered in his Cinq grandes odes (Five Great Odes) at the beginning of the last century. Claudel had laid claim to a physiological grounding of his rhythms in the diastolic/systolic rhythm of the human heart. The linking devices between the stanzas suggest Charles Péguy's insistent use of repetition, anaphora, and paratactic construction in poems much longer than Césaire's that were highly praised between the two world wars. Passages in the later sequences of the 1939 "Notebook" indicate that Césaire had taken to heart Rimbaud's goal of visionary poetry. In denouncing the effects of colonialism on his Caribbean island home, Césaire demonstrated that he had also understood the corrosive poetics of Lautréamont.
Césaire postponed identifying his speaker in order to foreground the collective suffering of colonial society. The first twenty-four stanzas are a panoramic presentation of the island — poor, diseased, lacking a real identity — in which personification allows the hills (mornes), the shacks, and the unsanitary conditions of the little towns that grew up around the sugar plantations to express the physical degradation and the moral ugliness resulting from three centuries of colonial neglect. The population is present in the aggregate, an undifferentiated "one" or "you" that is then disarticulated into body parts — mouths, hands, feet, buttocks, genitals — in the Christmas festivity section. Punctuation is typical of parataxis: commas, semicolons, colons, which serve to pile up effects until they overwhelm the reader's senses. The "I" emerges only in stanza 20, where Césaire focuses on a foul-smelling shack as a synecdoche of colonial society. Introduction of the speaker's family at this point stresses the mother's sacrifice for her children and the father's moods alternating between "melancholy tenderness" and "towering flames of anger." The transition from the first to the second sequence involves a shift of focus away from the sickness of colonial society to the speaker's own delusions. He alludes in stanza 29 to "betrayed trusts" and "uncertain evasive duty." He imagines his own heroic return to the island: "I would arrive sleek and young in this land of mine and I would say to this land...." In the course of the second sequence, the speaker comes very gradually to a realization of his own alienation as a consequence of colonial education. Moral prostration and a diminished sense of self are related directly to the colonial process and its cultural institutions. The same stanza includes the long narrative segment devoted to the old black man on the streetcar. Césaire multiplies signifiers of blackness that clearly denote both his physical and moral self. Centuries of dehumanization have produced a "masterpiece of caricature."
The third sequence introduces a series of interrogations about the meaning of blackness or negritude in the context of the speaker's alienation from those values he will posit as African. From this point on, the speaker adopts a prayerful attitude that is signalled formally by ritual language. Stanzas 64 through 67 afford a positive response to the negative characteristics of colonized peoples expressed in stanza 61. In this new sequence, Césaire evokes the "Ethiopian" peoples of Africa, whose fundamental difference from Hamitic peoples he learned from Leo Frobenius's book on African civilization. Suzanne Césaire described these traits in Tropiques: "Ethiopian civilization is tied to the plant, to the vegetative cycle. // It is dreamlike, mystical and turned inward. The Ethiopian does not seek to understand phenomena, to seize and dominate exterior reality. It gives itself over to living a life identical to that of the plant, confident in life's continuity: germinate, grow, flower, fruit, and the cycle begins again" (GCD). The third sequence sets up a contrapuntal structure in which the Ethiopian characteristics of sub-Saharan Africans, as the Césaires understood them, are opposed positively to the Splengerian evocation of European decadence found in stanzas 39 and 70. A reversal of attitude on the part of the speaker, who in stanza 61 could see only the negative connotations of these same characteristics, results from this dynamic. The beginning of his own personal transformation shows him that these peoples are "truly the eldest sons of the world" and, indeed, the "flesh of the world's flesh pulsating with the very motion of the world."
A dozen stanzas, from 80 to 91, detail the sufferings of African slaves torn from their native cultures to toil, suffer, and die in the plantations of the Americas from Brazil through the West Indies to the southern United States. Names of diseases are enumerated like rosary beads in stanza 87 before the speaker intones a litany of the punishments permitted by the Black Code that governed slaves' lives until abolition in 1848. No doubt because of stress placed on the political implications of the version published in 1956, the network of religious allusion in which Césaire's denunciation of slavery is couched has gone largely unnoticed. It is probable that Césaire intended to give voice to Du Bois's double consciousness. His goal in 1939 was surely to create for colonized blacks in the French empire a version of Alain Locke's New Negro. Like many modernists in the English-speaking world, he used the language of religion — or, more accurately, a comparative mythology that includes the Bible — to elaborate a vocabulary and syntax of spiritual renewal. As the penultimate sequence of the "Notebook" comes to its climax, the speaker prepares to undergo a profound transformation. Stanzas 88 and 89 present the geography of suffering black humanity. The latter stanza replies directly to the claims made by "scientific" racism in stanza 52 in the context of the speaker's assimilationist delirium. His infernal descent hits bottom in stanza 90: "and the Negro every day more base, more cowardly, more sterile, less profound, more spilled out of himself, more separated from himself, more wily with himself, less immediate to himself." The isolated line that constitutes stanza 91 reiterates the spiritual motif of sacrifice: "I accept, I accept it all." The process of anagnorisis is then complete; with self-awareness comes a new consciousness of what is at stake. The speaker must, in conclusion, reach a position that transcends the colonial dead end.
The speaker's spiritual renewal opens with a pietà. The body of his country, its bones broken, is placed in his despairing arms. In stanza 92, the life force overwhelms him like some cosmic bull that lends its regenerative power. The initially bizarre image of the speaker spilling his seed upon the ground like the biblical Onan invites the reader to consider a far more primitive scene of the fecund earth being impregnated by the speaker's sperm. The round shape of the mornes, which early on had assumed a symbolic role in the geography of the island, now signifies the breast whose nipple is surrounded by a life-giving force. The entire island becomes a living, sexualized being that responds to the speaker's firm embrace. Cyclones are its great breath, and volcanoes contain the seismic pulse of this primal mother goddess with whom the speaker breaks the taboo of incest. The consequences of this life-giving embrace are both immediate and transformative. Already in stanza 93, the island is standing erect, side by side with her lover-son who through stanza 96 will denounce the centuries-old process of pseudomorphosis.
Pseudomorphosis was readily identifiable in 1939 as a key word in the lexicon of Oswald Spengler, whose Decline of the West was much discussed between the two world wars. By including this technical term toward the end of the third sequence of his long poem, Césaire named the process by which the speaker and his island society had come to be physically ill, morally prostrate, and ideologically deluded. In Césaire's view, colonial society had been impeded from developing its own original forms and institutions by the imposition of French cultural norms on a population transported from Africa. Négritude as it is presented in the poem did not yet exist in 1939, still less was it the harbinger of any movement. Négritude in the 1939 "Notebook" is the ideal result of an inner transformation that must overthrow the old behaviors (la vieille négritude) so that a new black humanity (negritude in its positive sense) might emerge.
Césaire finally exorcises the memory of the slave ship in stanzas 103–105. He first announces its death throes: "The ghastly tapeworm of its cargo gnaws the fetid guts of the strange suckling of the sea!" He then details the horrors inflicted upon slaves carried on ships surprised on the high seas after the abolition of the trade. The sole surviving edited typescript is accompanied by a manuscript conclusion that begins with the last five lines of stanza 108. In an accompanying letter to the editor of Volontés, Césaire called his new ending "more conclusive" than the one he had originally submitted for publication. In the final stanza, the speaker identifies with the mauvais nègre who calls all of nature into play during his transformation. He enjoins the spirit of the air to take over from an unreliable sun: "encoil yourself," "devour," "embrace," and especially "bind me." The images of binding by the wind (6 repetitions) complete the series begun by "devour" and "encoil." The speaker is to be bound to his people in a sacrificial act that sanctifies the transition from individual to collective identity. If the reader has followed the multiple biblical allusions that have sustained the vehicle of this transformation, it becomes clear in the final dramatic stanza that the Holy Spirit of Christianity has been supplanted by an ancient divinity of the natural world. This is particularly apparent in the final image of a celestial Dove that, after ritually strangling the speaker with its lasso of stars, bears him up to the heavens. After expressing an earlier desire to drown himself in despair, the speaker utters a final sybilline phrase that brings the poem to its abrupt conclusion: "It is there I will now fish / the malevolent tongue of the night in its immobile veerition!"
The publication history of the Cahier/Notebook in French presents the reader with a palimpsest in which each subsequent version (two in 1947, one in 1956) foregrounds new elements while pushing others into the background. The New York bilingual edition published by Brentano's in January 1947 is fundamentally different from all others in its allegiance to surrealist poetics and radical individualism. In October 1943, after revising the 1939 text for publication in New York, Césaire wrote that "To Maintain Poetry" one must "defend oneself against social concerns by creating a zone of incandescence, on the near side of which, within which there flowers in terrible security the unheard blossom of the 'I'...." With respect to the 1939 text, Césaire proceeded in 1947 by accretion, adding new elements to heighten a poem that he intended to remove even further from socio-political concerns. Specifically, he inserted at the beginning of the third movement of the poem, at stanza 63, a sequence of some fifty stanzas that he had published in 1942 under the title "In the Guise of a Literary Manifesto." In the wartime magazine Tropiques, it was dedicated to André Breton. The effect of the new passage is precisely that described in the excerpt from "To Maintain Poetry" quoted above. When the Brentano's text was printed in January 1947, it was already anachronistic. It embodied Césaire's commitment to the surrealist program of psychic liberation and freedom from constraints of all types during the second world war.
The first Paris edition of the Cahier, published by Bordas just weeks after the New York edition but prepared some four years later when the poet was a sitting Communist member of the French legislature, is clearly a transitional version. We can locate it midway between the spiritual quest of the 1939 text and the politically committed text of 1956, both in its formal and its ideological aspects. Formally, the long sequence adapted from "In the Guise of a Literary Manifesto" was moved from the third to the second movement of the poem, beginning at stanza 37, so as to give the impression that the speaker's transformation has already begun at that early stage. Still more conclusively, Césaire wrote a new initial stanza, the effect of which was to disrupt the impersonal tone of the entire first movement, from which the "I" was absent from 1939 through the New York edition of 1947. All readers of the post-1956 editions of the poem recall it because of its aggressive tenor:
At the end of daybreak ...
Beat it, I said to him, you cop, you lousy pig, beat it, I detest the flunkies of order and the cockchafers of hope. Beat it, evil grigri, you bedbug of a petty monk. Then I turned toward paradises lost for him and his kin, calmer than the face of a woman telling lies, and there, rocked by the flux of a never exhausted thought I nourished the wind, I unlaced the monsters and heard rise, from the other side of disaster, a river of turtledoves and savanna clover which I carry forever in my depths height-deep as the twentieth floor of the most arrogant houses and as a guard against the putrefying force of crepuscular surroundings, surveyed night and day by a cursed venereal sun.
One can scarcely overestimate the effect of this passage, which situates the speaker personally and politically over against a society that is policed by "the flunkies of order." Moreover, on the threshold of this new iteration of the poem, the speaker already knows the lessons revealed only in the conclusion of the 1939 text. As a frame tale, this vision worthy of Lautréamont places in a recent past the evocation of the sick colony (stanzas 1-24) that was in fact the narrative present of the poem in its two earlier versions. Finally, readers of The Miraculous Weapons, published just a year earlier, could recognize in the "other side of disaster" one of Césaire's recurringmetaphors for the slave trade and its consequences. The frame tale inaugurated by the new overture to the Cahier/Notebook was completed in the 1947 Bordas edition by four new stanzas that Césaire placed strategically just prior to the finale:
by the clinking noon sea by the burgeoning midnight sun listen sparrow hawk that holds the keys to the orient
by the disarmed day by the stony spurt of the rain listen dogfish that watches over the occident
listen white dog of the north, black serpent of the south that cinches the sky girdle
* * *
and for this reason, [white-toothed] Lord, the frail-necked men receive and perceive deadly triangular calm
This new material contained a political allegory alien to earlier texts of the poem. In the context of the looming Cold War, images of whiteness, predatory dogs, and dogfish sharks designated clearly enough the capitalist world of the West that Césaire set over against the Soviet "sparrow hawk that holds the keys to the orient." Political allegory was absent from the poetics of the Cahier/Notebook from 1939 to the 1947 New York edition. Still more important perhaps was the rhythmic break the new material introduced just prior to the speaker's final revelatory vision. By redirecting the reader's attention from the spiritual transformation of the speaker onto a political plane, the frame of reference and the conditions for producing meaning were strategically modified. The Bordas text thus represents both a denial and a reorientation of the poetics Césaire had practiced in revising his long poem between 1941 and 1943. They certainly resulted from Césaire's frustration over the French government's refusal to grant full political and economic rights to its West Indian citizens from 1946 to 1948.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire"
Copyright © 1970 Editions Gallimard, Paris.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
The Original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land
The Miraculous Weapons (1946)
Solar Throat Slashed (1948)
Lost Body (1950)
i, laminaria… (1982)
Like a Misunderstanding of Salvation (1994)
Notes on the Poems
About the Translators •Index
Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1939)
Les Armes miraculeuses (1946)
Soleil cou coupé (1948)
Corps perdu (1950)
moi, laminaire… (1982)
Comme un malendendu de salut (1994)
Notes on the Poems
About the Translators •Index
What People are Saying About This
“This bilingual edition offers three inestimable gifts: Césaire’s poetry in its original, unrevised form, rich details on the contexts of publication, and new translations into English that account for both. A treasure!”
“This unobtrusively scholarly bilingual edition serves Césaire and his readers supremely well. Its forensic approach exposes the diachronic layering of Césaire's poetics, most notably the sedimentary traces of tensions and torsions between the poetic and political imperatives.”
“The scholarship and talent of A. J. Arnold and Clayton Eshleman have once again firmly placed Aimé Césaire on the map of world literature and introduced us to new readings of a master poet.”
"This bilingual edition offers three inestimable gifts: Césaire's poetry in its original, unrevised form, rich details on the contexts of publication, and new translations into English that account for both. A treasure!" Richard Watts, author of Packaging Post/Coloniality: The Manufacture of Literary Identity in the Francophone World
"The scholarship and talent of A. J. Arnold and Clayton Eshleman have once again firmly placed Aimé Césaire on the map of world literature and introduced us to new readings of a master poet."Maryse Condé, writer and professor emeritus, Columbia University
"This unobtrusively scholarly bilingual edition serves Césaire and his readers supremely well. Its forensic approach exposes the diachronic layering of Césaire's poetics, most notably the sedimentary traces of tensions and torsions between the poetic and political imperatives."Mary Gallagher, professor of French and Francophone Studies, University College Dublin