The Great Black Hole: Reading for the Ghost in Césaire’s “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal,”1939
By a letter from the Coast of Guiney, via Barbadoes, dated the 14th of January last, we have Advice, that Capt. Bear in a Vessel belonging to Rhode Island, being off Capt. Coast Castle with a Number of Negro Slaves, and a considerable Quantity of Gold Dust on board; the said Slaves found an opportunity to rise against the Master and Men, and kill’d the said Master and all the Crew, except the two Masters [Mates], who by jumping over board and swimming ashore sav’d their lives.” What became of the vessel and the Africans is not known.
1. An/other and the line.
This border thinking and double critique are the necessary conditions for “an other thinking,” a thinking that is no longer conceivable in Hegel’s dialectics, but located at the border of coloniality of power in the modern world system. Why? Because Hegel’s dialectics presuppose a linear conception of historical development, whereas “an other thinking” is based on the spatial confrontations between different concepts of history.
Walter Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs
Let us approach Césaire’s crown poem through the question of history, or more precisely, through the main problems of Caribbean historiography. The Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, no doubt, responds to the great historical breach dug by colonial historiography and sponsored by the mission civilisatrice. Not only does the poem work to reclaim the drowned voice of the past, it attempts to re-map the very practice of history in order to secure a critical space elsewhere from the Modernity which excluded it a priori.
In the process of dismantling the formal linearity imposed on the poem by some critics (who inevitably herald those who, offering as evidence the fate of the post-colonial state, proclaim the ultimate failure of négritude), I will work to show that starting with its earliest version, the poem opens itself to the possibility of non-linear conceptions of historical time and agency that make of négritude not a fait accompli, but a renewable promise. If I succeed, you will see ghosts by the end of the essay.
The textual history of the poem soon dispels any illusions of linearity in the poem. Starting with the first published version in Volontés in 1939 and going through three substantial transformations, the poem rearranged its interior sequences before reaching “definite” form in the 1956 Présence africaine edition. Lillian Pestre de Almeida, the first scholar to do a thorough comparison of the four texts, dismissed the rearrangements as a feature of one of the earliest versions of the poem, the 1947 Brentano’s edition. As I demonstrated elsewhere, these large stanza migrations take place after the drafting of the Brentano’s edition and thus cannot be dismissed so easily. Once we acknowledge that there is no pariah text we can exclude to preserve a coherent narrative of expansion and refinement, and that it was in the 1947 Bordas where the first transpositions takes place, and not the 1947 Brentano’s, it already becomes clear at the textual level that we cannot talk of any consistent linear sequence without qualification.
Let us briefly illustrate. The “Bridge,” as I have called the middle passage of the 1939 text, includes the tramway scene in its entirety, which most critics have understood as the crucial turning point in the Poet’s subjectivity. If a series of stanzas traded places in relation to this crucial passage, most critics would agree that the valence of those stanzas as markers of an epiphanic narrative would also change and with it any tentative linear narrative we may construct around the poem. This is exactly what happened. With this example, perhaps we’ve only demonstrated that the “poem” has held several different linear narratives, all but one awaiting close reading, but the history of the text is not the only resistance we encounter to linearity.
“Après tout, fichons tout en l’air,” Césaire guides us in an interview, when asked about his initial approach when composing the poem, and perhaps we should declare it with him as we assail the poem once more. “La première chose que j’ai écrite,” Césaire reminisces, “c’est le Cahier. J’ai dû le faire assez lentement, vers 1936, en des strates différentes, mais en gros, je l’ai certainement commence vers 1936, comme un cahier.” (Ngal 64) In other words, there is already a demand, hinted at by the title itself, for another kind of reading. As a preliminary exercise, I encourage the reader to read any version by jumping around the text and choosing stanzas at random, as one would with entries in a notebook. I promise the reader will find this hopscotch surprisingly refreshing.
We could also follow James Arnold’s astute directive to read the poem holistically as palimpsest, which implies that all previous versions of the poem survive in some form or another in later avatars, which in turn suggests that all tentative linear narratives would overlie out of joint with one another. This kind of reading is only possible, of course, after all versions have been studied in their specificity, but it is well worth the effort. As will soon become apparent, what we will attempt here belongs to another register.
First of all, we should clarify that the imperative to read the poem out of joint does not necessarily proscribe a close-reading that trails along a specific version stanza by stanza “as is,” but it should guard us rather from the illusion that the development of the Poet’s subjectivity, culminating in the jump to freedom, is grounded on what Gérard Genette —a propos of the novel— would name “a first narrative,” what others call the fable. In other words, the opening to emancipation, performed variously by the different versions, cannot be adequately reconstructed as a stable sequential series of subjective events taking place in the time of cause and consequence, the time of first A, then B, then C, which is also coincidentally the time of progressivist History, and ultimately of all arrogant constructions of the notion of Modernity.
So, what else instead? I feel tempted to say that what we have is a series of anachronic interruptions, to continue the narratological jargon, but this would preserve the illusion that behind the breaks we should still be able to fill in the gaps. A rebel Poet confronting a History that has worked assiduously to undermine local histories, a history that will never be able to be reconstructed as chronicle, such a Poet turned provisional historian cannot but reproduce out of the debris of his inheritance a semblance of its historical predicament —and he does.
For Walter Benjamin, “erst der erlösten Mencsheit ihre Vergangenheit in jedem ihrer Momente zitierbar geworden.” (252)  Lacking the vision of the final Chronicler, the materialist historian Benjamin prescribed in the “Theses on History” knows that the past which bespeaks him flashes at a moment of danger,
Vergangenes historisch artikulieren heißt nicht, es erkennen ›wie es denn eigentlick gewesen ist‹. Es heißt, sich einer Erinnerung bemächtigen, wie sie im Augenblick einer Gefahr aufblitzt. Dem historischen Materialismus geht es darum, ein Bild der Vergangenheit festzuhalten, wie es sich im Augenblick der Gefahr dem historischen Subjekt unversehens einstellt. Die Gefahr droht sowohl dem Bestand der Tradition wie ihren Empfängern. Für beide ist sie en un dieselbe: sich zum Werkzeug der herrschenden Klasse herzugeben. (253) 
In so much as the Poet of the Cahier tries to position himself vis-à-vis a mangled history and understands that the recipients of the broken “tradition” continue to be at the mercy of colonialist policy, we could say that he is a materialist historian in the Benjaminian sense. Furthermore, what we have is not solely a battle for the endangered fragments of the past from the hand of the victorious “Antichrist,” but the Christic task of resurrection itself, for if there is any “tradition” we could speak of, it has already been buried twice over.
The role of slaves in their own emancipation, to use an example privileged by the poem, was not simply reinterpreted by History as criminal insurrection, it was effectively drowned as the non-history of the enslaved. Whether such a history could have been directly born out of the diffuse mass of African prisoners we signify as slaves today is irrelevant when we consider that it is to their descendants, magnetized by geographies of hardship, for whom this history can function as such in the present. Goaded by this distress, the poem will become the paradigmatic vehicle for a salutary return of the repressed. Thus, we argue, the linear progress proper to the printed page lives in symbiosis with the haunted grounds of an unpredictable time, the time in which this resurrection must take place.
The notion of an unpredictable time naturally creates some difficulties, and we will approach it in the form of what we consider one of the main problems of Caribbean historiography: the drowned event. Taking our cue from the end of the poem, we re-begin our reading there with an
What happens to the slaves aboard the négrier at the end of the poem when they are finally able to rise and declare themselves
Most would and have answered that because the passage is to be read as an allegory, perhaps as an omen of the liberation movements that swept the colonized world following the 1950s, therefore the fate of these freedom fighters is the fait accompli of the post-colonial state. A more abrupt answer comes from metropolitan historiography: nothing came of it; History continued without them. Another, the Hollywood answer, would foreclose the question and allow the revolted slaves to share the fate of Sengbe Pieh and the Mende aboard the Amistad without further complications. All three of these answers misinterpret the question.
Perhaps we get closer to the mark in Césaire’s next major undertaking after the Cahier, the Saint-Dié typescript of Et les chiens se taisaient. Some pages into the beginning of Acte II of the current pagination, a passerby warns others who underestimate the revolted slaves and their leader Toussaint not to repeat the mistake of those before/after them,
Vous connaissez la version blanche (notre version) de l’histoire du négrier : le nègre Cinquez donne le signal de la révolte. La révolte triomphe. Mais voilà le nègre Cinquez ne sait pas conduire un bateau… Ha, ha! Voyez vous cela d’ici… Quelle revanche pour les Blancs!… La mer indocile le grimoire des étoiles… la famine… le désespoir… Mais imaginez ceci un instant, mes amis : le nègre Cinquez sait conduire un bateau! Le nègre Cinquez sait lire dans les étoiles ! Le nègre Cinquez met le cap sur une terre qu’il a calculée juste.
Et voilà : un beau jour, le nègre Cinquez débarque avec sa bande, son peuple, dirais-je dans un pays magnifique, plein de soleil, de perroquets, de fruits, d’eau douce, d’arbres à pain… (50)
These lines complicate our answer in a couple of ways: On the one hand, Césaire makes us aware of the duality of repressed history: There are two possible fates depending on who you ask: An assumed version and an/other version. When we approach our question through this filter, the rebellion at sea must be answered dually, as it is here. On the other hand, the anachronism of the answer by the passerby gives us further pause. The incident of the schooner La Amistad happens roughly four decades after the events narrated in the Saint-Dié typescript. The dilemma aspires to paradox, as the passerby revives a history which has not taken place in the timeframe of the story, which has taken place in the time of the retelling. In short, if the revolt at sea failed, the rebels drowned, if it succeeded their victory was drowned by History. Again, Césaire does not let us off the hook easily. So I repeat, really, what happened, in the Cahier, to these aspirant navigators “qui n’ont inventé ni la poudre ni la boussole“? Once we put on our Spinoza hats and direct our question solely to the text, we find our poem tells a strange tale indeed.
After their successful revolt at sea, those who didn’t invent the compass, who therefore did not know how to navigate a cargo ship in the open seas, found themselves floating on a perfectly endless Atlantic Ocean, or as Glissant would have it in La Poétique de la création, across “[le] gouffre, trois fois noué à l’inconnu.” (18)
debout et non point pauvre folle dans sa liberté et son dénuement maritimes girant en la dérive parfait (49) 
The recusant I, now standing on the ship, embodied in the rebel slaves, free at last, dances his “danses de mauvais nègre,” frees the chain-gang and prays for the chains of brotherhood; he releases a dove; like Noah’s family aboard the ark, they search for dry land; “monte, Colombe, monte.” (50) The cataclysm prefigured at the beginning of the poem has once again come to pass, for these unexpected sailors inhabit Noah’s world, a world massively covered by water and sky. Nonetheless, the ship will not share fates with Noah and his bestiary. As Michael Dash suspects, “L’imagination de Césaire est hantée par la catastrophe du négrier: le navire funèbre qui représente le destin tragique du peuple antillais. [Et] ce n’est pas l’arche de Noé mais un monstre antédiluvien qui a dévoré un peuple: Le Léviathan.” (159)
Et le grand trou noir où je voulais me noyer l’autre lune
C’est là que je veux pêcher maintenant
la langue maléfique de la nuit en son immobile verrition! (Cahier 51)
And so, accompanied by the stars and a mute compass, the Poet enacts a minatory slew astride the “grand trou noir,” both irrecoverable oblivion and an opening unto freedom. Hungry and free, he longs there to fish out the maleficent tongue of the night, in order perhaps to enable the dark speech kept in that obscure, unmovable last nonce of return: verrition.
Of all the meanings attributed to this golem word, I find solace in a sort of lowest common denominator: a sort of turn-about, eddying motion. The most credible reference has been offered by R. Hénane, who takes us back to Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a famous 19th Century gastronome with a penchant for neologisms. In a chapter aptly titled, “Suprématie de l’homme,” of his Physiologie du Goût, Brillat-Savarin describes what he sees as the three kinds of eating motions in animals:
J’y ai, en outre, découvert au moins trois mouvements inconnus aux animaux, et que je nomme mouvements de spication, de rotation et de verrition (à verro, lat., je balaye) … le troisième, quand la langue, se recourbant en dessus ou en dessous, ramasse les portions qui peuvent rester dans le canal demi-circulaire formé par les lèvres et les gencives.
This round motion of the tongue, meant to scoop out debris, vividly evokes the post-pandrial animal at the moment when the last crumbs lose their grip, leaving nothing unswallowed. In its sweep, the tongue also suggests a bend, or retour if you will. —Is it the “widening gyre” of a Second Coming? Perhaps— our ship has reached the unpredictable whirlpool of a great black hole, an image with a long scientific history, to be spun anew at the hands of our négre Poet. And through to the other side, where to? We remain immobile, a bit shaken, without answers we search for a dark and powerful speech, and thus right at the exit door we are engulfed anew by the poem, by the pays natal, to solve the mystery of our new found freedom. For that reason, we demand from this monstrous imprint, verrition, that it allow us another reading, this time, a reading stirred with echoes from our first, “linear” reading.
And what do we find on our return to the beginning of the 1939 text?
2. How to See Dead People
He who first gave to Martinique its poetical name, Le Pays de Revenants, thought of his wonderful island only as “The Country of Comers-back,” where Nature’s unspeakable spell bewitches wandering souls like the caress of a Circe,—never as the Land of Ghosts. Yet either translation of the name holds equal truth: a land of ghosts it is, this marvellous Martinique!
Lafcadio Hearn, Two Years in the French West Indies.
J’entends de la cale monter les malédictions enchaînées, les hoquètements des mourants, le bruit d’un qu’on jette à la mer… les abois d’une femme en gésine… des râclements d’ongles cherchant des gorges… des ricanements de fouet… des farfouillis de vermines parmi des lassitudes…
Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, 1939
Many have pointed to the many voyages, subjective and geographical, mapped by the poem, but as far as I can tell, no attention has been paid to the fact that for most of the trajectory we seem to haunt a peculiar space, the holds and decks of a ghost ship, both before and after the prisoner insurrection. Lillian Pestre de Almeida points us in the right direction in her essay on Camöes’ Os Luciads, Glissant’s Les Indes and the Cahier, where she reads these poems as maritime epics in the tradition of The Odyssey or The Ennead, coming very close to our mark but not quite there yet. The hermeneutical elephant in the room comes perhaps as a consequence of the privileging of the 1956 text. While our spectral reading can be easily sustained throughout the 1939 text, the additions made to the poem after the poet returned to Martinique dilute the erstwhile overdetermined slave ship. A superficial recap of the main portions added over the years, the voom rooh oh chant, the Raison/Folie excursus, the surge of the colibri, quickly exposes the misdirection.
So how do we spot the ghost ship outside the direct references to the Middle Passage? First of all, we look to the obvious place: the extensive maritime references in use throughout the poem. Thus we find that the voice of the “négrillon somnolent” can only respond with a hunger that “ne sait plus grimper aux agrès de sa voix“; or the fact that prejudice and stupidity take the form of the “coltis infranchissables” which separated the crew of the slaver from the chained prisoners. The extensive list of nautical references in the poem does not allow us to perform a detailed study of each occurrence; therefore we leave it to the reader to make herself attuned to them. Since the rattle of the dead ascends beyond such references, we will devote ourselves to more elusive, but ultimately more defining forms of ghosting the text.
Starting with the opening lines of the 1939 text,
Au bout du petit matin bourgeonnant d’anses frêles les Antilles qui ont faim, les Antilles grêlées de petite vérole, les Antilles dynamitées d’alcool, échouées dans la boue de cette baie,  dans la poussière de cette ville sinistrement échouées.
Au bout du petit matin, l’extrême, trompeuse désolée eschare sur la blessure des eaux; les martyrs qui ne témoignent pas; les fleurs du sang qui se fanent et s’éparpillent dans le vent inutile comme des cris de perroquets babillards; une vieille vie menteusement souriante, ses lèvres ouvertes d’angoisses désaffectées; une vieille misère pourrissant sous le soleil, silencieusement; un vieux silence crevant de pustules tièdes. (23)
we must look for those turns of phrase where meaning would seem disjointed otherwise, such as the grievance, “dans le vent inutile,” above. Why should the wind be useless if it refers solely to the “flowers of blood”? If we take the flowers of blood in their botanical sense, we are probably talking about the flamboyant tree, or Delonix regia, and the useless wind only makes sense if we agree these fallen flowers serve no purpose detached from their branches. If we take them emblematically, we have several options: In one of his excellent annotations of the 1956 text, Abiola Irele points us to the fleurs de lys branded as logo on the bloody backs of slaves, and thus serve as the inescapable mark of the colonial encounter (39). Here the wind would be useless because the memory of the encounter fails to cohere. Both of these interpretations are adequate, but still leave the words strangely out of place. In our sounding for the ghost ship, the uselessness of the wind takes an eerie turn when we consider our unlikely sailors may not know what to do with it. Detached from their home, these fallen petals drift powerless with the wind. Moreover, were the ship commandeered in the Middle Passage, one of its fates would be the doldrums, some miles south of the route commonly followed by the slavers, where the wind becomes truly useless, regardless of seamanship.
In the same spirit we ask the question of the hunger which cannot climb the rigging of the child’s throat. What a strange use of metaphor, perfectly out of place, uncanny even. Where does this hunger that cannot reach the topmasts of a sailing ship come from? In our reading: From inadequate and famished landsmen who fail to climb the rigging of the slaver.
These unexpected intrusions from the sea possess and alter the material world around them, and sound a jarring note to alert us to their presence. Using our first two stanzas, the reader will notice that I highlighted all the language which would carry with it the story of our ghost ship. In the first stanza they alone form the verbal component in the form of the participle echouée, to beach, to run aground, but also to fail. Through the paradoxical image of the island as witness to past shipwrecks and shipwreck itself, the series of nouns and adjectives adding up to the Antilles become the failed ship, or to say it an/other way, the Antilles become possessed by the slave ship as shipwreck. The parallels between an island and a ship facilitate this move, and as many close readers of the poem have noticed, it is through formal kinships of this kind that Césaire creates some of his most wonderful poetic effects.
But the Antilles are not the only space reclaimed by the drenching specter of the slave ship. If we pay careful attention we will notice that, a) the poem is filling up with water, and b) all dramatic encounters take place in phantasmal quarters. By dramatic encounters, we mean those memorable moments where the presence of the Poet or his imago is made manifest through a dramatic tableau. Of these we can list several, the main ones being the memory of his childhood homes, in one of which his mother worked tirelessly at the Singer machine, the Nöel celebration, Toussaint’s death-scene, the horse sale on « DE PROFUNDIS » road, the tramway episode and the slave revolt itself. Here is the description of the first childhood home, where the poetic-I makes his first direct appearance,
Et cette joie ancienne m’apportant la connaissance de ma présente misère,
une route bossuée qui pique une tête dans un creux où elle éparpille quelques cases: une route infatigable qui charge à fond de train un morne en haut duquel elle s’enlise brutalement dans une mare de maisons pataudes, une route follement montante, témérairement descendante, et la carcasse de bois comiquement juchée sur de minuscules pattes de ciment que j’appelle « notre maison », sa coiffure de tôle ondulant au soleil comme une peau qui sèche, la salle à manger, le plancher grossier où luisent des têtes de clous, les solives de sapin et d’ombre qui courent au plafond, les chaises de paille fantômales, la lumière grise de la lampe, celle vernissée et rapide des cancrelats qui bourdonne à faire mal… (26)
In the first half of the stanza we obtain a description of the road that leads to the “carcasse de bois,” in terms of the violently rising and diving movements atop a tempestuous wave, echoed in the dizzying syllabic iteration of, “une route follement montante, témérairement descendante.” The road is both wave and vessel as it navigates through “une mare de maisons pautades,” until we reach the more definite structure the poet calls « notre maison ». The effect is unmistakable, the frail shack, with its tin sails undulating under the sun provides a transitory vehicle for the ghost ship, at all moments under threat of being engulfed by the furies. In case we missed it, the chairs’ materiality, the omnipresent paille, immediately reminds us we are in the realm of the phantasmal.
In the same way, anytime we find ourselves in the other enclosed spaces of the poem, we must take care to notice the cramped conditions of the slave-hold or its turbulent motions. Notice, for example, the growing confinement of “une maison minuscule qui abrite en ses entrailles de bois pourri des dizaines de rats et la turbulence de mes six frères et sœurs,” or the tumultuous mood of the “père fantasque,” who echoes with his behavior the violent motion of the road/wave above.
Now we must return to our observation that the poem slowly fills up with water in order to understand the fragile mechanism which sustains the tight plait between the material and the spectral we’ve signaled so far. Just as befell the insurgents, slowly but surely, the text drowns. Where many have commented on Césaire’s volcanic poetics, I would place an equal stress on the fluid (i.e. lava, water, rum, air, etc) for which the volcano provides a vehicle, and go as far as rechristening the poetics fluidic. These two driving figures, the vehicle and the fluid, in the privileged form of the volcano and the sea, coalesce without delay at the beginning of the poem, on the fourth, “apocalyptic” stanza,
Au bout du petit matin, sur cette plus fragile épaisseur de terre que dépasse de façon humiliante son grandiose avenir — les volcans éclateront, l’eau nue emportera les taches mûres du soleil et il ne restera plus qu’un bouillonnement tiède picoré d’oiseaux marins — la plage des songes et l’insensé réveil. (23)
This prophetic stanza, which we cannot fully explain with mere reference to the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelée and the destruction of the coastal town of Saint-Pierre, announces the aftermath of the volcanoes’ fiery revolutions: all will be covered by a tepid bubbling. In other words, all except seabirds will be drowned in water. In keeping with the dislocation of time we predicted above when we introduced the notion of an unpredictable time, the syntax of the stanza makes it difficult to decide whether “la plage des songes et l’insensé réveil” remain after the foretold apocalypse or whether we should understand the dashes as brackets which separate the time of prophecy from the putative present. One fact remains, regardless of our choice, the prophecy burrows itself to the heart of the stanza, hinting through its typographical maneuvering its provision of centrality: All will be covered by water.
We find two main processes in the poem by which all will be covered by water: a) by being engulfed; and b) by deliquescence. Not surprisingly, both of these processes mirror the historiographic dilemmas we introduced above: a) A History that threatens to swallow the event whole, and b) The assimilation from within into this History. This correspondence shows to what extent the poem finds water portentous and the significance of the ship’s survival against an ocean which threatens both from within and without. The poem overdetermines both processes, as we shall shortly see.
The first kind of drowning we found already in the tenuous trajectory of the vessels and rickety thatches, starting with the Antilles as archi-vessel, licked by a sea that bites like a dog. In brief, throughout the holds of the poem we hear the ominous insistence of the rain outside the chanting church, confabulating with the knells,
les cloches… la pluie…
qui tintent, tintent, tintent… (28)
In that day, the LORD will punish with his sword, his fierce, great and powerful sword, Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.
Je te livre mes paroles abruptes
Dévore et enroule-toi
Et t’enroulant embrasse-moi d’un plus vaste frisson
Embrasse-moi jusqu’au nous furieux
Embrasse, embrasse NOUS
Mais nous ayant également mordus!
Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, 1939
Before the Poet ships off to Europe on the reverse leg of the Middle Passage, he provides us with perhaps the strongest reaffirmation of death by water,
Tout le monde la méprise la rue Paille. C’est là que la jeunesse du bourg se débauche. C’est là surtout que la mer déverse ses immondices, ses chats morts et ses chiens crevés. Car la rue débouche sur la plage, et la plage ne suffit pas à la rage écumante de la mer.
Une détresse cette plage elle aussi, avec ses tas d’ordure pourrissant, ses croupes furtives qui se soulagent, et le sable est noir, funèbre, on n’a jamais vu un sable si noir, et l’écume glisse dessus en glapissant, et la mer la frappe à grands coups de boxe, ou plutôt la mer est un gros chien qui lèche et mord la plage aux jarrets, et à force de la mordre elle finira par la dévorer, bien sûr, la plage et la rue Paille avec. (30)
These stanzas hardly need elucidation in light of our discussion thus far, but it helps to add a few important remarks. Notice, first of all, how it allows for a quick recapitulation of some main points: The island which is a vessel (cf. stanzas 1, 2, et al.), struggles against the prophecy/threat of death by water (cf. stanzas 4, 28, et al.); the road which is a river/wave already marks the fissures in the structure which allows water in, as we saw in its rush through stanza 20 analyzed above, etc. More importantly, the location of this stanza within the poem offers us an opportunity in our reading to demonstrate yet another of the ways in which traditional chronology does not sit comfortably in the poem.
If the cosmos of the poem were to be engulfed in water, as foretold in the fourth stanza, we expect a gradual process culminating in the presumed oceanic gulp at the end of the poem, such that in stanza 28, just quoted, the prophesy is not yet fulfilled, even as the sea makes further inroads on the island. This is prophecy that works teleologically, with the assumption that the poem describes a gradual unfolding leading to the final coming to be. In contrast to our teleological expectations, before the Poet departs on his journey to Europe, we find a few stanzas where all is already covered in water, where all is water already. Notice, for example, the description of death-in-life four stanzas right before stanza 28,
Au bout du petit matin, la vie prostrée, on ne sait où dépêcher ses rêves avortés, le fleuve de vie désespérément torpide dans son lit, sans turgescence ni dépression, incertain de fluer, lamentablement vide, la lourde impartialité de l’ennui, répartissant l’ombre sur toutes choses égales, l’air stagnant sans une trouée d’oiseau clair (29)
Although this is not the bubbling water of the prophecy, “sans turgescence ni dépression” and curiously devoid of bird dives, ALL is covered by water. Postponing for the moment the difference between the two flooded cosmoses, the one in the prophecy and the one in this passage, notice that the emptiness of the scene, “lamentablement vide,” undoubtedly depicts a post-apocalyptic world. In other words, prophecy has come to pass already, even as it remains unfulfilled. This casts a peculiar light on the role of prophecy in the poem.
As opposed to the kind of text in which the end fulfills the promise of the beginning, such as maritime epics like the Odyssey or the Ennead, in which there is a true sense of an ending prefigured through prophecy, the Cahier proposes a notion of vatic time that remains unpredictable because it has and will not have fulfilled its promise. This is not the palingenesis of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft or Also Sprach Zarathustra of the man strong enough to repeat his own life, nor the self-completing loop of A. Kojève’s reading of the Phänomenologie des Geistes culminating in the ultimate Cyclopic conscience, but rather the lacertine spiral motion of a tireless submersion and emersion in and from the oceanic currents of memory and language, where history must be relived “an/other” way —or to quote a rather monadic Michael Dash, “the image of a spiral that unites the one and the multiple, in the explosion of a single movement.” (160)
In this unpredictable vatic time, the drowning of the free-men, the drowning of history if you will, serves as both prophecy and its fulfillment: prophecy because it prefigures the struggle of Césaire and his audience in modern times, prophecy because it prefigures the poem read as echo, prophecy because it has been denied historicity; fulfillment because it is the last internal reification of death by water, fulfillment because it really happened, fulfillment because drowning itself is a filling up fully.
Our analysis may strike the reader as (anti-)metaphysical reverie, but this understanding of prophecy will become central when we try to rearticulate, in no-nonsense terms, the problem of freedom. To be precise, freedom as phenomena remains a second coming for the Caribbean population described in the poem. In other words, the present of the poem lives in a post-emancipatory time, but without a living memory of the already effected opening unto freedom, a lack exacerbated by the misdirecting memory of endowed freedom provided by History, it remains trapped in pre-emancipatory time. In this sense above all, the decayed material present illuminated by the poem becomes the locus for the spectral event of freedom, which has already taken place as the drowned history of rebellion.
4. What goes down must go up.
Anybody wholly or partially immersed in a fluid experiences an up thrust equal to, but opposite in sense to, the weight of the fluid displaced.
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
Samuel T. Coleridge. Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.
The poem, as we have seen, disables the effects of the dark prophecy, in a sense condemning it to remain prophecy or threat. Undoubtedly, this move becomes an opening unto freedom when the prophecy of Modernity looms over whole communities: “les nègres-sont-tous-les-mêmes, je-vous-le-dis,” etc. To restate the point, the process and threat of “drowning” remain in such a way as to make of resistance (i.e. the pirogue that pushes on against all odds) the ontological condition of freedom.
Conscious of our ambiguous place within this unpredictable time, (pre-apocalyptic? post-apocalyptic?) we are ready to understand the copious leakage in the poem and the bind between the material and the spectral that will allow Césaire to recuperate the drowned martyrs of the revolt aboard the négrier. The Nöel scene is paradigmatic,
[…] et l’on est bien à l’intérieur, et l’on en mange du bon, et l’on en boit du réjouissant et il y a du boudin, celui étroit de deux doigts qui s’enroule en volubile, celui large et trapu, le bénin à goût de serpolet, le violent à incandescence pimentée, et du café brûlant et de l’anis sucré, et du punch au lait, et le soleil liquide des rhums, et toutes sortes de bonnes choses qui vous imposent autoritairement les muqueuses ou vous les fondent en subtilités, ou vous les distillent en ravissements, on vous les tissent de fragrances, et l’on rit, et l’on chante, et les refrains fusent à perte de vue comme des cocotiers:
KYRIE ELEISON… LEISON… LEISON,
CHRISTE ELEISON… LEISON… LEISON.
Et ce ne sont pas seulement les bouches qui chantent, mais les mains, mais les pieds, mais les fesses, mais les sexes, et la créature tout entière qui se liquéfie en sons, voix et rythme.
Arrivée au sommet de son ascension, la joie crève comme un nuage. Les chants ne s’arrêtent pas, mais ils roulent maintenant inquiets et lourds par les vallées de la peur, les tunnels de l’angoisse et les feux de l’enfer. (28)
In this long sequence we can observe a three-fold process of liquefaction leading to the synthesis liquid/sound: 1) The congregation drinks; 2) the drinks impose themselves on their inner mucosae, and 3) the congregation finally melts down into sound. Two particulars must be observed from this saturation of the material body of the congregation: First of all, and the three-fold process of liquefaction above makes this clear: within the world of the poem the realm of the material: a) intakes, b) contains and c) liquefies unpredictably. And second, and this point is crucial, we are traversing a phantasmal world, hellish even, “les vallées de la peur, les tunnels de l’angoisse et les feux de l’enfer,” which in light of the echoes we have attuned ourselves to, can be understood as the underworld of the drowned ship.
We had earlier pointed to the kinship between the petite église and the revolted négrier along with similar edifices within the poem, and now our analysis makes the disparate elements cohere even further: the strangely agoraphobic congregation assailed by rain, the roads outside emblematically empty, the eventual “drowning,” etc. Our close reading of these passages confirms that within the poem the material becomes the site of possession by the echo of the drowned. As a corollary, the inelegant material body becomes the site or entry point wherein we can reclaim the phantasmal. By inscribing history unto the material condition of the people through metaphor, the poem in effect provides us with the sense that the true history of men and women cannot be permanently deleted, making the machinations of the Archive less traumatic. In other words, without resorting to oral history and legend as will be done later by other artists and scholars in the Caribbean, Césaire allows for the drowned shard of history to be salvaged without the fetish of the archival law: “If it isn’t written, it didn’t happen.”
The transubstantiation of the drowned historical unto the material finally allows us to respond to the problem of collective amnesia. The poem presents the situation in two guises: a) the absence of an adequate, or proper archive of the people; and b) the consequent apathy of the disengaged multitude to the problem of history. Though put on display by several stanzas, both of these dilemmas are condensed in the powerful scene at the beginning of the poem where the hungry-for-else schoolboy fails to learn the alienating lesson,
Et ni l’instituteur dans sa classe, ni le prêtre au catéchisme ne pourront tirer un mot de ce négrillon somnolent, malgré leur manière si énergique à tous deux de tambouriner son crâne tondu, car c’est dans les marais de la faim que s’est enlisée sa voix d’inanition (un mot-un-seul-mot et je-vous-en-tiens-quitte-de-la-reine-Blanche-de-Castille, un mot-un-seul-mot, voyez-vous-ce-petit-sauvage-qui-ne-sait-pas-un-seul-des-dix-commandements-de-Dieu),
car sa voix s’oublie dans les marais de la faim,
et il n’y a rien, rien à tirer vraiment de ce petit vaurien,
qu’une faim qui ne sait plus grimper aux agrès de sa voix,
une faim lourde et veule,
une faim ensevelie au plus profond de la Faim de ce morne famélique. (25)
Threatened by amnesia as dismal as the burial waters of the Atlantic, the poem enacts a ‘reading’ of the material conditions of the people of Martinique that enables the drowned events of the past to resonate in the fragmentary present. The hunger of the boy drowns as the free-slaver drowns, its voice forgotten for now along the muddy seabed. A hunger which took place, and a drowning which takes place, conspire together through the phantasmal. The “poetic option,” in contrast to the practice that calls itself ‘scientific,’ allows us to read history where history is absent, both from education and the living consciousness, from “cette foule désolée sous le soleil, ne participant à rien de ce qui s’exprime, s’affirme, se libère au grand jour de cette terre sienne,” by offering it to us inscribed in the everyday bodies of those scorned by History. It is perhaps in this sense above all that Ricœur ‘s words a propos the poetic option resonate with us in an odd way,
“Ma thèse est ici que l’abolition d’une référence de premier rang, abolition opérée par la fiction et par la poésie, est la condition de possibilité pour que soit libérée un référence de second rang, qui atteint le monde non plus seulement au niveau des objets manipulables, mais au niveau que Husserl désignait par l’expression de Lebenswelt et Heidegger par celle d’être-au-monde. ” (114)
5. A Beginner’s Guide to Isomorphism
The artificial part of poetry, perhaps we shall be right to say all artifice, reduces itself to the principle of parallelism. The structure of poetry is that of continuous parallelism, ranging from the technical so-called Parallelism of Hebrew poetry and the antiphons of Church music to the intricacy of Greek or Italian or English verse.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Poetic Diction.”
Like a Mondrian, the Cahier positions the vertical and the horizontal at odds with each other. Unlike Mondrian, Césaire seems to have a bias for the vertical. Horizontality where we find it in the poem usually refers to proneness and stasis. The most prominent surfaces in the poem are the sea, the land and the human skin. Verticality will pierce and deform them, as you can verify. No surface remains flat for long. If we were talking about the sea, we would say that verticality links the sky to the bottom of the ocean; if we were talking about the land, verticality would connect the sky to the mineral world beneath the surface; in terms of the skin, verticality would connect the world outside the skin with our blood and organs, etc. This privileged verticality, this ability to pierce the surface, always struck me as a very virile metaphor. Obviously, for Césaire verticality can be linked to his avowed penchant for “volcanic” imagery. No matter how you cut it though, there is a Freudian echo here —am I mistaken?
If we believe, as we should, that this poem stages a return and acceptance of the repressed —or to call it by its proper name: a resurrection— we must conclude that we are invited to witness the underworld where these things lay dormant. I think we can also agree that there are at least two types of repressions that the poem confronts: the disavowed sins of the poet and the erased history of his people. The poem blends the two journeys to the point where it becomes impossible to separate them.
Well, you have already descended to these enfers once, perhaps unwittingly, on your first reading. Now that we have been asked to return, half way through the second reading, my intention is to take you deeper, as any psychopomp worthy of the name should. So perhaps it would be appropriate to revisit the old song, nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, ci ritroviamo per una selva oscura… halfway through we find ourselves on a dark jungle…
My mistake. I meant the following Caribbean remix,
We’ll start there, where the poem starts: near the native land.
We’re not just looking at this map to remember where home is or to catch up on our general geography. The poem wants us to look at a map. It wants us to see the forms that are on it. In fact, there are lines that wouldn’t make any sense without a map in front of us. In one stanza, the poet even portrays himself in the act of stretching out his fingers over the arched figure of the Caribbean:
je n’ai pas le droit de calculer la vie à mon empan fuligineux; de me réduire à ce petit rien ellipsoïdal qui tremble à quatre doigts au-dessus de la ligne.
A couple of stanzas later we find these other lines
Ce qui est à moi, ces quelques milliers de mortiférés qui tournent en rond dans la calebasse d’une île et ce qui est à moi aussi l’archipel arqué comme le désir inquiet de se nier, on dirait une anxiété maternelle pour protéger la ténuité plus délicate qui sépare l’une de l’autre Amérique; et ses flancs qui sécrètent pour l’Europe la bonne liqueur d’un Gulf Stream, et l’un des deux versants d’incandescence entre quoi l’Equateur funambule vers l’Afrique…
I’ve highlighted those turns of phrase where the poet depends on the image that a particular geographical feature describes on a map.
« la calebasse d’une île »
It is a verifiable fact, which may have not escaped your attention, that there are more nouns in Césaire’s early poems than verbs. We are justified in saying that they are in a certain way image-driven. This statement applies across the border. From beginning to end the Cahier is full of vivid imagery, as if the poet is guiding us through a wunderkammer. I hope you can all agree with me so far. What is not so self-evident is that the sequence of images are never self-identical. Let me explain myself using the example of the island/calabash. So what is the island, an island or a calabash? What about the calabash? Notice that this is not a simile, there is no “like a calabash” here. The two images blend irretrievably, to the point where we can never see a calabash again without thinking of Martinique or vice-versa. I would like to call this brand of isomorphism which leads to semantic indeterminacy figural aporia. This is one of the most important features of the language of the Cahier and poetry in general, and we find it there too, on that other cartography of the poem: The human skin.
Just like islands on a map or fallen leaves on the street, deformations of the skin also form different surface effects. All of the following images come from particular passages in the poem. I have picked those which are less gruesome from my collection just to illustrate how these distortions evoke patterns which could be discussed in terms of topography:
« grêlée de petite vérole »
« les vingt-neuf coup de fouet légal »
The most prevalent deformation of the skin in the poem, the pustule, as well as the most prevalent topographical feature, the morne, share the same shape. This is another variation of the figural aporia I spoke of above, which allows the poet to create certain transitions between the body of the land and the body of the people.
From the beginning of the poem, this morne/pustule somehow takes on the role of a failed volcano, the quintessential image of the bottled-up. To return to our Freudian lens, the morne/pustule becomes the first symbol for the repressed, and by extension of the people. (That is not to say that the morne does not allow some passage, some fluidity in its current condition. On stanza 13, for example, we are informed that the morne is perfectly capable of vomiting tired men. In the same stanza we learn also that the morne is wounded, that it bleeds. But it seems the poet would rather see his morne spew fire and brimstone as a proper volcano should, instead of piecemeal abjection.)
To scratch the surface one register at a time, let’s focus for now on the parade of dermatological pathologies related to the retention or expulsion of liquid from within the organism. Not much sustained work has been done on the corporal references throughout the poem outside the phenomenology collected by Gérard G. Pigeon or the semantic work of the physician-turned-scholar, René Hénane, both of whom fall short in their studies of a morphological analysis of each disease as it relates to the rest of the poem’s metaphorical brocade. We cannot here but provide a brief analysis of the coetaneous by pointing out that the diseases mentioned by Césaire, though mostly eradicated by now, were part of the Martinican landscape when the poet was growing up, and just as the boy’s hunger, constitute an ineludible referent to misery outside metaphorical transformation and the body of language. Precisely because of this, the privileging of the skin as the site of putrefaction builds the metaphorical on an inescapable, because palpable, material basis.
The salient paradigmatic symptom, as I pointed out, is the pustule echoed in “la parade des risibles et scrofuleux bubons, les poutures de microbes très étranges, les poisons sans alexitère connu, les sanies de plaies bien antiques, les fermentations imprévisibles d’espèces putrescibles.” These deformations of the skin, marking the poem throughout, can fall under two categories: a) the visible symptoms of internal disorders exemplified by the “scrofuleux bubons” (which in particular manifest as a sign of tuberculosis); and b) the wound itself, exemplified by the “sanies de plaies bien antiques.” In both cases we have purulent alterations of the epidermis.
It is hard to avoid the morphological affinities between these pathological formations and the dominant imagery prevalent throughout the poem. As such, the diseases of the skin form in their ensemble an excellent counterpoint to the ocean as fissure and the volcano as protrusion. While the figure of death-by-water points us downward as the site of a drowning, and the figure of the volcano points us upward as the site of an eruption, the skin of the ailing populace strands us in the stasis of the surface as both ocean and volcano.
In this guise, the body of the people becomes the vehicle of choice for in/resurrection. Therefore, it is here where we find the locus of all the poet’s aspirations, and here where the breakthrough must take place. It is here where the amnesia of History has made its mark, both as the neglect of the colonized subject (the boy’s hunger, the diseased populace) and the lack of historical consciousness (the boy’s lack of interest, the martyrs who can’t testify). Nevertheless, as unstable precipitates of the dialectic between History and repressed history, the population becomes ridden with the phantasmal. Hence, Amnesia becomes surmountable inasmuch as the diseased population is already inhabited by a repressed (history) that manifests as abject symptom. The diseased body and country, turned malleable language, thus becomes the site of a mass revelation. The apparent stasis or dwelling of the phantasmal insurrection introduced by poetic reverie gives the material conditions of the people, turned material body of the poem, the qualities of a magic mirror wherein the reader can regard not only her material misery, but her historical potential as well. If the poem desires prophecy then, it is through this ability to map a repressed past into the present body of a people which can prompt an in/resurrection of the event… unpredictably.
Césaire believed that poetry could provide a kind of knowledge which could vie with scientific knowledge for relevance to human affairs in the ideal societies of the future. This much we can gather from his aesthetic philosophy around the time, which we can reconstruct for the most part from his work for the journal Tropiques, especially from his essay “Poésie et connaissance,” which appeared in the journal in 1944. He thought that nature could be approached with a different set of questions than the ones the scientist is familiar with. Even though by 1944 he is switching gears into full-blown surrealist mode, the 1939 version of the poem is already making an effort to reconstitute our approach to nature.
This rapprochement takes place as I’m arguing here, particularly through the formal elements of the image. Thus by analogy, a volcanic morne, which resembles a pustule, which resembles a sun spot, all isomorphic images linked within the poem, teach us a lesson from nature that the scientist failed to learn. What isomorphism provides for Césaire, and for the reader willing to open herself up to the experience, is a way to participate in nature by blending with it at the level of the imagination. This is not to be confused with the Romantic poet’s yearning to filter nature through his (or hers, but mostly his) sensitivity. Quite the contrary, the aim here is to blur the boundaries between humanity and nature, to graft them back on. Or to quote Césaire, “Et lie, lie-moi sans remords/lie-moi de tes vastes bras à l’argile lumineuse/ lie ma noire vibration au nombril même du monde/Lie, lie-moi, fraternité âpre. ”
The transformation, or “deformation,” of one thing into another, which is the poet’s trade, establishes a new relationship between the person and her world, opposed to being a passive observer or its conqueror. In this new, and somehow ancient relationship, the person stands to gain. Through the imagination, she seizes to be as small as her body and can transform herself, or dive into, the natural processes. Thus Césaire called poetry “[l’]Epanouissement de l’homme à la mesure du monde.” So far I think you follow me: the person becomes the volcano becomes the person.
It’s hard to deny the primacy of volcanic imagery in Césaire’s poetry. We know from interviews and the evidence of his collected works that Césaire was obsessed with volcanoes. In my view, there are two sides to this obsession. On the one hand, the destruction of the city of St. Pierre after the eruption of Mont Pelé in 1902 haunted the poet’s childhood, and on the other hand, the mechanism by which the volcano releases its magma deposits has the potential to be a perfect model of expression for a poetics interested in recapturing a buried past in the service of a global upheaval.
Now that we know by what mechanism we can get out, let us finally descend undaunted to the underworld in the manner of Hades himself, who according to the Roman versions of the myth, made his way to the underworld through the mouth of mount Etna in Sicily after abducting Persephone. So what lies under the volcano? Our first answer is simple: basically, MAGMA. There are many other possible answers, neither of which is as simple as this one.
I have already suggested two possibilities, one personal and one collective: there is a personal volcano and a collective volcano. The personal can be easily accessible from our first reading of the poem: The poetic-I defeats his demons and returns to Martinique a victorious rebel ready for the fight to come.
What follows and precedes is an effort to map out the mechanism by which the collective repressed comes to the surface, in particular a drowned history of agency. James Arnold argued a few decades ago that we see in Césaire a move away from history towards the mythical in a Nietzschean vein. This is probably a fair reading of Césaire’s work for most of the forties, at the height of his collaboration with the international surrealist movement, BUT an analysis of the 1939 Cahier coupled with the recent discovery of the previously unknown early draft of Et les chiens se taisaient, have allowed us to get a clearer picture of the pre-surrealist Césaire. This Césaire, the Césaire of this argument, had not yet bid his adieus to history.
We already saw one function of the figural aporia: to provide a model for the union between humans and nature. The poem also facilitates a similar blend between humanity and history by using the same poetic device in a different key. The difference between the topographies of the skin and the ones I’ve been describing as the ghost ship of the Cahier is the difference between those things which belong to the realm of the verifiable (i.e. nature) and those which belong to the realm of the spectral (i.e. history). For those of you who like canned worms, notice that the spectral relation is already embodied in the structure of metaphor in general (vehicle/tenor; body/spirit): the ghost must inhabit another body, it must be able to possess another form. This observation is as old as Christianity, as old as Vodun, but if we are to keep some semblance of scholarly rigor in our claims about literature, we must at least prove that our interpretational fancies belong to recognizable and predictable patterns.
Having adjusted our sights to recognize the aporia in the figures, I want you to make a leap with me from the micro to the macro level. Instead of two images fusing together in a poetic line or two, I want you to imagine a tableau being woven into the fabric of the whole poem. By tableau I mean nothing more than a constellation of images pertaining to a particular scenario or situation: the phantasmagoria of African rebels adrift at sea. Because of the high incidence of metaphoric vehicles in the poem drawn from this particular tableau, we could talk about it in terms of image clusters.
For those who are interested in an old-school introduction to the notion of image clusters, I refer you to the work of the late Kenneth Burke, who published his “Philosophy of literary form” on the same year as the Cahier came out in Volontés. For an updated version, you must look to the digital humanities, where some of the most exciting work on image clusters is being done today. In “The Mind is a Metaphor,” for example, Brad Pacanek has led the compilation of an enormous database of metaphors of the mind in the British 18th Century that help us better understand how notions of thought and thinking depend on patterns of material substrata, and how these notions can be grounded in the particulars of historical phraseology.
The crowds at the beginning of the poem are described as living outside of history, disconnected from one another and their collective past, with no memory of former martyrs or rebellions. Years of white supremacist ideology finally taking its toll, leading to exhaustion and collective amnesia. The repressed of the collective is a history of slavery and revolt. The repressed of the collective is the middle passage and the rebellion at sea. The repressed aches to be released.
6. A small place to host an Event.
To the people in a small place, the division of Time into the Past, the Present, and the Future does not exist. An event that occurred one hundred years ago might be as vivid to them as if it were happening at this very moment. And then, an event that is occurring at this very moment might pass before them with such dimness that it is as if it had happened one hundred years ago.
Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place
Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
On analysis such as ours we always run the risk of reifying given Caribbean ways of relating or refuting time as always-already oppositional to Western historicity by sheer dint of being other-than. We do not want to slip and slide down a facile multiculturalism by synchronizing the poem’s watchful crack of time with an omnium gatherum of quirky Caribbean pendulums. We find enough examples in the critical literature to have cause for concern. Take, for example, Timothy J. Reiss’s study of the echoes and wanderings of Don Quixote in Caribbean literature and culture. Essaying hard to demonstrate the Quixotic nature of the Caribbean’s relation to History —a History “not imposed, but always absorbed and given back”—, he exhausts a wide range of references scooped from an unpeppered callaloo of usual suspects, Carpentier, Condé, Walcott, Dash, Kincaid, Carew, etc., to content himself with the conclusion that, “one needs to understand times as composed differently by different cultures, by no means necessarily commutable.” (311)
Eduoard Glissant warns us against such attitudes. Even if we are able to isolate a particular way of relating to time that contrasts with linear historicity, this alternative relation may co-exist as disquieting contradiction in the colonized culture, as he argues for Martinique. Observing the way country-folk tend to measure time in relation to memorable natural disasters, he distinguishes a “temps-nature” which clashes with imposed History, but he understands that this “instinctive” form of resistance cannot thrive under neo-colonial circumstances:
“L’obstination à considérer le temps comme un vécu naturel […] reflète bien une réaction instinctive globale contre la prétention d’imposer « un » temps historique, qui serait celui de l’Occident.
Mais, dans le même mouvement, nos élites ont consenti à cette imposition. Elles ont intoxiqué peu à peu la mentalité générale par cette croyance en l’unicité historique et en la force (le pouvoir) de ceux qui la font ou prétendent la contrôler. La contradiction naît de ce double mouvement: le refus vécu d’une histoire trop « culturée » et la croyance idéelle en une histoire qui n’est que force et pouvoir d’une culture (autre).” (274-275)
Ever the student of Césaire, Glissant reflects an attitude we already find present in the earliest version of the poem. Although both authors understand that there is much in the way of potential in the body of the people and their relation to their environment, an uncritical acceptance of their cultural practices remains out of the question. The ‘people’ described in the poem suffer from a chronic detachment from a history of their own, as living-dead on a Caribbean Flying Dutchman, for whom history belongs to someone else, and as such, unable to form a suitable group consciousness, “étonnamment passée à côté de son cri comme cette ville à côté de son mouvement, de son sens, sans inquiétude, à côté de son vrai cri.” (6)
While Glissant prescribes, among other remedies, a consistent re-periodization of Martinican history as an alternative to imposed, universalistic History, Césaire prefers to remain unsystematic about any purported re-immersion into a historical frame-of-mind, choosing instead to bind certain themes poetically: a) Erasure of the event; b) Formation of a subjective geography based on a non-biological concept of race; and c) Acceptance and identification on the personal level with a humble past.
“[L]es martyrs qui ne témoignent pas,” the suicide who swallows his tongue, Toussaint Louverture— the poem resounds with the echoes of those who have resisted, who have “lampé la liberté féroce“, but those also who have failed to constitute an event that bind the memory of the community. Before reaching the quintessential Event aboard the négrier, towards the end of the poem, the Poet presents the historical event proper to the people as either non-existent or “ignoble” at best. Glissant offers us a clue as to the cause: “Pour un peuple qui ne s’exprime pas, pour un peuple mentalement asservi, il n’y a pas d’événements, il n’y a que la non-histoire : l’absence à toute décision et à toute maturation qui le concernent […] Un peuple sans événement, un peuple qui ne se voit pas et ne se pense pas : c’est notre plus sûre calamité.” (Discours 172-173) Ménil another : “le mystère de notre impossible histoire n’est pas dans l’absurdité du passé mais dans l’incohérence et l’inconsistance de notre actuelle conscience sociale.” (23) Lack of expression, detachment and servility, these are the elements that bar both the event and the historical community from cohering. Thus the people are portrayed in the poem as a diffused mass, “Cette foule qui ne sait pas faire foule,” echoed by the countless figures of dispersion, islands, pustules, fallen leaves, mornes, etc.
Even if these cannot be reconstructed into a stable chronological narrative, the poem itself is constituted by a cluster of subjective events that counter radical fragmentation and prefigure the primordial event of insurrection. The two most prominent of these events name the poem: the return from Europe and the acceptance and affiliation with a disavowed common past, both of which count as “returns” to the Native Land. Together with the final event of freedom, these events mark, above all, a form of immersion or ‘return’ into history: Immersion into the community, immersion into a disavowed history and immersion into the Event itself —each of these an echo of the other, and only possible as echoes, or as Abiola Irele would have it, “les échos que fait retentir dans la conscience du poète le choc originel du fondement événementiel de son historicité.” (219)
These events, born out of the Poet’s own laudable travails to escape the determination of History, can only function as events because they serve to bring together disparate elements around the Poet’s subjectivity —to be read this instance metonymically as a part/person for the whole/community— and assemble out of these disjecti membra poetæ a portrait of historical consciousness. In other words, even if the event requires expression to exist, the mere event of expression — the “vrai cri“— does not suffice to found an event as such; the naming of the event must also fulfill certain synthetic conditions. The event of insurrection at sea proves the rule.
In Breaking the Chains: African-American Slave Resistance, William Loren Katz, documents at least 150 cases of insurrection at sea for his young audience; other historians account for as much as 400. Most of the historical evidence for these cases comes to us from reports written by those who quelled or survived them. A small number of these revolts actually succeeded in bringing the freed men and women back to the African coast, with part of the crew kept alive to steer the ship —and tell the tale. The case retold on our lead epigraph is peculiar in that the fate of the ship remains unknown. In all cases, the truth of the event, the subjectivity of the rebel, escapes the telling.
Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” perhaps the most famous literary example of black insurrection at sea before the Cahier, published on the eve of the American Civil War, already presents us with some of the key problems arising from a historical truth mis-en-abîme. Capt. Delano’s search for the story of the San Dominick constantly misses the mark, seeing only what he wants to see or what he fears the most; the perspicacious reader, on the other hand, always aware of what’s going on aboard the ship, enjoys, at least for a while, her ability to read between the lines what eludes the ‘good-natured’ skipper. She can see “the truth,” she believes, and so she falls in Melville’s trap. The story ends with a deposition —similar to those we use today as historical evidence of slave insurrections at sea— which confirms and retells the story of the rebels, but instead of leaving us in a self-congratulatory mood, the final section leaves us with the suspicion that the truth eluded us all along. Read until about the middle of the 20th Century as a Good versus Evil story, unwittingly re-enacting the folly of Capt. Delano, critics took a long time to recognize that what we had instead was a story about the lack of a story: the truth according to Babo, the leader of the revolt.
‘Benito Cereno’ leaves the subjectivity of the insurgent up for grabs, revealing by repetition the structural problem we find in the many historical documents. The African rebel aboard a slaver, agent of his own liberation, remains always to be reconstructed between the lines, and herein lays its peculiar structure. This is the key. Capt. Delano is the first to fall headlong in the trap, to be drawn in by the vacuum proper of a body without history, mixing paranoia and hysteria to survive the journey. Benito Cereno, drowning in nostalgia instead, freezes before the precipice when he Kurtzly answers “The negro” —a precursor to “The Horror! The Horror!” Yet it is there exactly, at the mesmeric boundary, where Césaire wants to search for “la langue maléfique.” Ailing from a peculiar case of the Derridean mal d’archive, the Poet’s journey begins there where others have met their feverish end.
What if we had Babo’s story, though? Wouldn’t we still be vulnerable to the same mis-en-abîme? Wouldn’t the rebel lose the peculiarity of his camouflage which commands us to adjust our sight? It cannot be then a simple matter of re-construction, as if the unverifiable original guaranteeing the truth —guarded somewhere in the archives of heaven or the ocean floor— would suffice. Nevertheless, this guarantee, evident as a haunting, forms the first characteristic of the Césairean Event. In other words, in order to enable the Event we must proceed as if there were an original event of insurrection —we allow the puppet and the dwarf to check-mate. This is history on another key. Hounded by “les martyrs qui ne témoignent pas” the Poet will retrace the steps of the swallowed tongue, always as if, risking at every moment to substitute it for his own: “Ma bouche sera la bouche des malheurs qui n’ont point de bouche.”
The second characteristic of the Césairean Event, isomorphism, gives meaning to the act of faith required of the first. Several coordinates must fall into place: just as we find isomorphism between the topographies of the land and the skin, we find isomorphism between the past event of insurrection and the future event of insurrection. This is why we have always felt such a commanding surge while reading the scene at the end of the poem, where the drowned event of the past becomes the perfect metaphor for the unpredictable event of freedom.
The third and last characteristic of the Césairean Event, perhaps the most defining, is the attempt to bind the dispersed community around and through the figure of the event of insurrection. In other words, the history that belongs, the ‘vrai cri,‘ must be a history that binds a community, through the figure of concerted action, where it was once dispersed. There is no room in this history for delusions of a glorious past for this is the same history of losers that Benjamin evokes in his meditations. As such, Césairean negritude must be read as a welcoming and not an exclusive club —perhaps the club with the most members. While the Poet must first form the diasporas within him and accept them as unsightly disaggregates, he does not create nor form them ex nihilo, but rather ‘reads’ the drowned event of history into the present material conditions of a dispersed body.
Césaire the poet proved to be a very different creature than Césaire the politician, and yet in hindsight they are starting to make more and more sense when we think them together. When asked about his views on independence for Martinique right after the war, he answers with what may seem in light of departmentalization a politician’s empty rhetoric. (Palcy 34:35)
Those of us who have been caught in between the currents of his poetry hear a different note. The rhetorical question becomes a real question: Do we turn to the past, do we turn to the future? We can only be certain of the turn itself. Freedom turns to form; the volcano to the ocean.
Aimé Césaire: Une Voix pour l’histoire. Dir. Euzhan Palcy. 2006.
Arnold, A. James. “Césaire’s Notebook as Palimpsest: The Text before, during, and after World War II.” Research in African Literature 35.5 (2004): 133-40.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminationen: Ausgewählte Schriften. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977.
Césaire, Aimé. “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.” Volontés 20 (1939): 23-51.
—. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. Ed. Abiola Irele. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2000.
Dash, Michael. “Le bateau ivre de Césaire et la quête de la connaissance.” Aimé Césaire, ou l’Athanor d’un alchimiste : Actes du premier Colloque international sur l’œuvre littéraire d’Aimé Césaire, Paris 21-23 novembre 1985. Paris: Éditions caribbéennes, 1987. 157-163.
Delas, Daniel. Aimé Césaire. Paris: Hachette, 1991.
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Glissant, Édouard. Le Discours antillais. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981.
—. Poétique de la relation. Paris: Gallimard, 1991.
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Rosello, Mireille. “‘One More Sea to Cross’: Exile and Intertextuality in Aimé Césaire’s ‘Cahier d’un retour au pays natal’.” Yale French Studies 83 (1993): 176-195.
 For a comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date account of the history of the Cahier see my essay “Bridging the Middle Passage: The textual (r)evolution of Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.”
 See Hale, “Structural Dynamics” (Structural Dynamics in a Third World Classic: Aimé Césaire’s ‘Cahier d’un retour au pays natal’ 170-171), or Hountondji (Le Cahier d’Aimé Césaire : Événement littéraire et facteur de révolution : Essai 22) for characteristic statements.
 I use the word Poet throughout as a stand-in for the poetic-I constructed by the poem. Because of the peculiar dialectic in the Cahier between the poetic-I and its universe, bound at times, detached at others, when we speak of the Poet’s subjectivity we should guard against the impulse to separate it from its textual context.
 “Only for a resurrected humanity would its past, in each of its moments, be citable.” (Trans. by Harry Zohn)
 “To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize ‘how it really was.’ It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject. The danger threatens the stock of tradition as much as its recipients. For both it is one and the same: handing itself over as the tool of the ruling classes.” (Ibid.)
 Notice that this same allegorical reading, by turning an event inevitably found in the past into the mirror image of the future event of colonial emancipation, manages to re-drown the event as history. When all the implications of this move have been accounted for, we can see that the practice of literary criticism and the practice of history confabulate with one other more than some would allow.
 All citations to the poem refer to the early 1939, Volontés text. My choice emphasizes the prevalence of our theme in this early text, before the substantial additions which followed.
 See Delas, p. 40 ; Kesteloot, p. 105; Joubert, p. 239; Hausser, pp. 67-68.
 After 1947a the poem will add the opening stanza familiar to the readers of the later texts.
 My emphasis.
 Irele points out that “une autre petite maison,” refers to “the parents’ home, as distinct from that of his grandfather,” previously described in the poem as « notre maison ». (57) We follow Irele’s reading in our analysis.
 Listen to the echo of the dove released to an endless sea of water towards the end of the poem. We hear another echo of the seabird when we consider the relationship between the tramway scene and Baudelaire’s “L’Albatros.” See Rosello, pp. 181-184.
 A similar synthesis applies for the Ophelia-like suicide a few stanzas before, “ […] pourquoi une femme semble faire la planche à la rivière Capot (son corps lumineusement obscur s’organise » docilement au commandement du nombril) mais elle n’est qu’un paquet d’eau sonore. ”
 It is believed that Césaire has not been as extensively read in his own Martinique as he has been in Africa or Europe. If indeed true, this misfortune does not detract from the fact that his fellow countrymen remain one constitutive half of his intended readership. That much is evident from the ample inflections and references that point to a Martinique audience.