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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Édouard Glissant: Négritude, Créolité, Mondialité

by Jean-Claude Lebrun

Édouard Glissant : Négritude, Créolité, Mondialité

When Poetry and Politics Go Hand in Hand

Translated Saturday 12 February 2011, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Henry Crapo

The French language and world literature have just lost one of their greatest figures: Édouard Glissant, a native of Martinique, died in Paris on February 3, aged 83.

Édouard Glissant was no doubt a poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist and philosopher. But no simple enumeration of this kind can give a fair idea of the man’s stature. He was far more than this, owing to the intelligence and acute awareness with which he at all times examined his various endeavours as ways to inscribe himself in the general movement of the world.

The period when his first poems were published (Un champ d’îles, la Terre inquiète, les Indes [1]) - from 1953 onwards- shortly preceded the moment when he joined the struggle for the cultural Negro-African revival. In the same way, the Renaudot prize he won in 1958 for la Lézarde, his first novel, preceded by one year only the foundation of the Carribean-Guyanese front along with Paul Niger. With him the creator and man-for-the-world walked hand in hand. He was an assiduous reader of Frantz Fanon at the time; because of his familiarity with Algerian independence-fighters he was soon consigned to metropolitan France, and the consignment lasted until 1965. In 1961 he signed the "manifesto of the 121" [2].

And all the while he was a prolific writer: new novels, plays, poems, essays succeeded one another year after year. He was active on all fronts until the very last; probing deeper into the themes of his novels (Malemort, la Case du commandeur [3], Mahogany), renewing his poetic manner (Pays rêvé, pays réel, Fastes [4]), widening his reflection in three cardinal works (l’Intention poétique, le Discours antillais, Poétique de la relation). All in one continuous movement …

From the single to the multiple identity

Meanwhile Édouard Glissant moved away from the concept of négritude (i.e. the concept of black identity and culture as opposed to French identity and its attendant colonialism, launched by Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor in 1947), which he had made his own at first. In its stead he invented the notion of antillanité (Carribbean identity – T’s N), which was no simple substitution. For the notion implies looking away from Africa to “the Other America” as a new anchorage point for Carribbean identities. Raphaël Confiant and Patrick Chamoiseau were later to follow in the wake of this novel thought about créolité (creole identity).

Thus at a very early stage Glissant sensed the movement of hybridization that is the modern world’s hallmark. He recently once more opposed root-identities (identités-racines) derived from old racial and national divisions to identity of relation (identité-relation) that takes into account the multiplicity of linguistic and cultural interactions. Yesterday’s single identity has made way for a multiple identity, for which he devised the metaphor of rhizomes that form a vast subterranean, multi-polar network [5].

The metaphor and the concept

Édouard Glissant’s singularity lies in the relation he wove between the two. For he did not think of the “poetic” and “politic” as two distinct categories. From the very first it was clear that poetry opened out into politics. He later made this point himself, saying he perceived a strong similitude between poetic conceptions and worldviews. In the latter as in the former he perceived two distinct basic tendencies, one that is closed, being “uniform, unilateral”, and the other open. The difference between them was owing to the imagination, which enables one to see and conceive differently, to move towards the other’s horizon out of one’s own limits. Writing was not in the service of politics: the political thought flowed from the writing itself. [6].

It was therefore no surprise that he founded l’Institut du Tout-Monde [7] in 2007, to “encourage the dissemination of the peoples’ imagination in its diversity.” To globalization he opposed “mondialité”: the taking into account of the peoples’ linguistic plurality, of the diversity of their artistic modes of expression, of their ways of thinking and living. Last year he published la Terre, le Feu, l’Eau et les Vents, anthologie de la poésie du Tout-Monde [8].

His own conclusion to his fertile travels through the world.

[1These works have not been translated yet. Translated literally, their titles would be: A Field of Islands, The Troubled Earth, the Indies.

[2The Manifesto of the 121 ( Déclaration sur le droit à l’insoumission dans la guerre d’Algérie or Declaration on the right to unsubordination in the Algerian War) was an open letter signed by 121 intellectuals, political activists, writers and artists and published on 6 September 1960. It called on the French government and public opinion to recognise the Algerian War as a legitimate anti-colonialist struggle for freedom and independence, denounced the use of torture by the French army, and called for French conscientious objectors to the conflict to be respected by the authorities.

[3The Commander’s Cabin.

[4Dreamland, Real Land, Annals

[5Édouard Glissant has often acknowledged his debt to French philosopher Deleuze.

[6See also http://www.humaniteinenglish.com/spip.php?article1163 Products of high Necessity, the manifesto Édouard Glissant and other prominent Carribean figures wrote during the powerful 2009 popular protest movement in the French Antilles.

[7Le Tout-Monde is one of Glissant’s favourite phrases in relation with his novel concept of mondialité.

[8A literal translation would be: Earth, Fire, Water and Winds, an Anthology of Tout-Monde Poetry.

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