Saturday, April 19, 2008

Aimé Césaire, Leopold Senghor, and the Postcolonial Middle Ages

At the age of 94, the poet, politician, and postcolonial theorist Aimé Césaire has died.

Blogs and websites around the world are offering their thoughts on his legacy. I was happy to discover this morning that a Blogger site is wholly dedicated to Césaire: Negritude offers a rich archive of materials, from primary sources to scholarship to collations of media mentions. Had I not encountered le poète martiniquais in my ninth grade French class, I might not have felt the gravitational tug of postcolonial studies, and might not have been inspired eventually to put together The Postcolonial Middle Ages.

During my first year of studying French, it seemed that the gates of linguistic heaven had opened ("There's a tense called future perfect?! I'm all over that!). My second year course, however, had reduced the language to the robotic mouthing of alien syllables and the memorization of conversation scripts. On a typical morning, Madame Allard would hook us to a tape player with multiple jacks, order us to don our headphones, and then command Écoutez et répétez! The voice on the tape would tell us that he was going to go shopping, or to the library, or to the cinema, and we would repeat his statements. He would remove a franc from his pocket to purchase a ticket or some cheese, and we would repeat that statement as well (yes, this anecdote of mine includes two artifacts lost to history: cassette tapes and French francs. It was that long ago).

If we weren't repeating from the tape loudly enough, Madame Allard would shout Répétez! Répétez! Répétez! in the exasperated way that only a teacher who has been in the classroom too long can -- you know, with sharp imperatives that carry a subtext of Mon dieu why do I have to teach these snotty dunderheads day in and day out until I retire? Meanwhile La Canard (as we naturally called Madame Allard behind her back) would have designated one lucky student to run to the doughnut store on the same block as our school, charged with bringing her back a croissant and un petite café with just touch of cream. She'd sip and munch as the tape held us captive to its tales of livres, fromage, and chiens.

Each day as I hooked in my headphones and the tape whirred to life, the protolinguist in me died a tiny bit. I remember, though, about midway through the term we opened our text book to a page that featured a small blurb on current francophone poetry. We were told to skip over the section to read some more conversation scripts (about purchasing une voiture, I believe, but maybe it was des escargots) -- but I didn't turn the page. I was hooked on what I saw.

Brief biographies of Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor demonstrated how their political ardors (one a member of the French parliament representing Martinique, the other the first president of Senegal) were accompanied by and entwined within artistic creation. A politician-poet? Could such a being exist? Wasn't politics the realm of the prosaic, wasn't art a realm untouched by cultural turmoil and decolonization movements and racism? I read what I could about Negritude ... and read what I could of each of their poetry. And you know, I was hooked. The beauty of the language, the rhythm of their poems ... now I could understand why French was worth the labor of studying. Forget buying une voiture. I was shopping for Cahier d'un retour au pays natal.

So what about you? What encounter with unexpected literature influenced you in a surprising way?


Eileen Joy said...

For me, it was Dante's "Inferno" [in modern translation, I'm afraid] in the sixth grade. My father, who was teaching a kind of "great books" course at Howard University at the time [as an adjunct] told my sister and I that he would pay us one dollar for each book we would be willing to read from his library, which was vast. I didn't care what the books were--I just wanted the money. I wish my impulses had been more noble, but my mind at that time was mainly fixated on packets of Bubble Yum and caramel anything. I remember just grabbing things off the shelf, reading them quickly without anything really sinking in, and then asking for the bucks. Most of it was classic western lit. stuff running the gamut from Ovid to Herman Hesse and I really can't remember what-all I read until I hit Dante's "Inferno"--it blew my sixth-grade mind and I couldn't sleep at night from the nightmares. But it also made me want to be a writer. I wrote my own version of the "Inferno" in a small brown notebook and when one of mother's friends, over for coffee and gossip, noticed it on the kitchen table and started reading it, she told my mother that she should take me to see a psychiatrist. My mother ignored this advice, thankfully, and an English major [and maybe a medievalist] was born.

ljs said...

jjc, what a wonderful anecdote. I love the way you ended it with the voiture nicely replaced by the retours . I want to go out and buy one too, now. Ca coute combien?

My unexpected encounter with literature doesn't involve translation, directly: it was reading Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot at exactly the time I was making my applications to universities. Back in the UK one has to apply for a subject, and I had my forms nearly filled out with "LAW" in that box. And then I read this wonderful novel which dared to tell chapters in the form of dictionary entries (a nod to Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas ) and exam questions. Ostensibly the story of the search for a stuffed parrot that had been on Flaubert's desk during the writing of the late Trois Contes, the novel yielded so much more than that, including applications to study literature instead.

(In a translation aside, Barnes is something of a Franophile, and his short story collection Cross Channel, which I read soon after, has one story relying on various French mis-hearings of the phrase Je suis surrealiste (including, Je suis, sir, realiste ). Though he was writing in English, he definitely opened up works written in other languages to me, awoke a desire to explore the playfulness of other languages.)

And now back to Beowulf . English before it was French, as Mary Kate might remind me...

Karl Steel said...

Barnes is something of a Francophile

Wouldn't you say he's the predominant Francophile of all time? I imagine the inside of his head as the epic dance sequence from An American in Paris.

First, thanks for this nice post on Cesaire. I wish I'd discovered him in my High School French class. There, we read no literature, and, like you, we overheard the killing-time-until-death conversation of jetsetting bourgeois. Not until my French class in my Senior year in college, in 1992, did I encounter Cesaire, where we read CLR James's Black Jacobins alongside Le Roi Christophe. Good stuff, and wholly suitable to my developing brand of politics (I remember writing a paper sneering at the 'big names' version of history on Simon Schama's Citizens and praising James's Marxism).

A coincidence: last night, Alison and I were swapping the names of books and authors we devoured in High School. I had the common collector mentality: in addition to reading all of the midbrow lit (everything by Vonnegut up to Bluebeard, 10 or so by Hesse, 4 or so by Dosteyevsky), I took the seed of any assigned 20th-century (post)modernist lit and tracked it down (thus I read tons of Beckett, Stoppard, and O'Neill). Given where I am now, it's funny that neither the Chaucer nor Shakespeare inspired similar excitement.

As always, I want to refuse all self-teleology, especially of the après-coup sort. Perhaps I can blame being a medievalist on my obsessive reading of the following: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (14 times by age 12), the AD&D Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide (innumerable times), the battle of Helm's Deep (likewise innumerable), and, god help me, the Conan novels (and, more justifiable I suppose if I want to justify myself, the better fantasy series: Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, and Moorcock's Elric). Medievalist content is, however, insufficient to explain what kind of medievalist I became (fawning?); the discovery of one's scholastic bent outside one's subdiscipline strikes me as just the thing: JJC's furtive, resistant encounter with Cesaire, Eileen's captivation by Dante, Lytton's stumbling into play (and here I remember my encounter after my BA with Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars).

But I'm still deeply inclined to refuse destiny and to go instead with some combination of the accidental and the mercenary and the deliberate.

Eileen Joy said...

Well, here's to the accidental every time. What Dante *really* made me want to be was a creative writer.

Karl Steel said...

What Dante *really* made me want to be was a creative writer.

And so you are!

And I should say that I treated JJC's question--"What encounter with unexpected literature influenced you in a surprising way?"--unfairly. It's not 'how you end up a medievalist.' Sheesh. And to this question, I just have to say: I dunno. I do know the essay I keep coming back to: Marcuse's gem, "The Ideology of Death" (discovered via Fradenburg's article on sacrifice in the Knight's Tale). It just keeps opening up new things to me, and, strangely, the other Marcuse I've spent time with (admittedly, not a ton), unlike the I. of Death, always seems to fall into some embarrassing pothole.

Anonymous said...

If we're going based on content, then it was probably reading Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in 1979 that made me a medievalist. (Although it could be argued that my love for the Appendices set me on a trajectory toward philology.)

But my most important book in methodological terms would have to be Raymond Williams's Marxism and Literature. Reading it at David Lorenzo Boyd's suggestion in 1992 showed me that you could indeed combine Marxist theory, old school formalism, and clear prose to expert effect.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Those are great stories, everyone; thanks for offering them.

Eileen, I'm sure your earned a steep mound of gum and caramel! I didn't read The Inferno until 9th grade, but remember being wowed by John Ciardi's translation -- and especially his unapologetic use of the word "shit" in his rendering.

LJS, nice story ... but it makes me wonder, what set you on the path towards poetry?

Karl, no post hoc ergo propter hioc for you I see. I think teleological stories are fine, provided they are provisional and under constant revision. The problem is when we tell them so many times that we come to believe them as the singular truth of who we always have been. But as you gleaned I am more interested in this post in unexpected books that, once encountered, alter your gravitational orbit in lingering ways. Not that they become destiny, but that they enlarge the world you inhabit or the path you trace.

Rob, I don't think so. I'm starting the rumor here and now that you became a medievalist through repeated childhood viewings of Smurf cartoons. They aren't hobbits, but they are small and their narratives feature wizards and journeys.