World Literature

Aime Cesaire

 

BORN: 1913, Basse-Pointe, Martinique, France

NATIONALITY: French

GENRE: Drama, poetry, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Return to My Native Land (1942)

And the Dogs Were Silent (1956)

The Tragedy of King Christophe (1963)

A Season in the Congo (1966)

A Tempest, Based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest— Adaptation for a Black Theatre (1969)

 

 

Aime Cesaire. Cesaire, Aime, photograph. AP Images.

 

Overview

Martinican author Aime Cesaire is not only responsible for Return to My Native Land (1942), a widely acknowledged masterpiece documenting the twentieth-century colonial condition, but he is also an accomplished playwright. Like his poetry and polemical essays, his plays explore the paradox of black identity under French colonial rule. Cesaire’s shift to drama in the late 1950s and 1960s allowed him to integrate the modernist and surrealist techniques of his poetry and the polemics of his prose.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Aptitude, Early Ambition. Aime Cesaire was born in Basse-Pointe, in the north of the island of Martinique. He was the second of the six children of Fernand Cesaire, a minor government official, and his wife, Eleonore, a seamstress. Although the family was poor, Cesaire received a good education and showed early aptitude for studies. He first attended the Lycee Schoelcher in Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, and then he received a scholarship to attend the prestigious Lycee Louis le Grand in Paris. There he met a Senegalese student, the future poet and African politician Leopold Senghor. In 1934 Cesaire, with Senghor and Guyanan poet Leon Damas, founded the student journal Black Student. This group of black Francophone intellectuals also developed the concept of ‘‘Negritude,’’ the embrace of blackness and Africanness as a counter to a legacy of colonial self-hatred.

In 1935 Cesaire entered the Ecole Normale Super- ieure in Paris. During this time he traveled to Dalmatia and began work on his Return to My Native Land. He eventually passed the agregation des lettres, the national competitive examination that leads to a career in teaching. In 1937 he married fellow Martinican student Suzanne Rossi. Their son, Jacques, the first of Cesaire’s four sons and two daughters, was born in 1938. In 1939 Cesaire and Suzanne returned to Martinique to take up teaching positions at Lycee Schoelcher. In 1939 Cesaire published his first version of Return to My Native Land. The long autobiographical poem has since become one of the best-known French poems of the twentieth century.

Active Anticolonialism. Cesaire and his wife returned to the Caribbean as World War II began. Although Martinique was far removed from Europe, as a French territory it suffered economically from a German blockade, then later from censorship imposed by a representative of the Vichy government—the interim French regime that cooperated with Nazi Germany in order to prevent total German occupation of France. Cesaire became increasingly critical of the Vichy government and established himself as a political voice in Martinique. In 1941 he and Suzanne founded the anticolonialist journal Tropics to promote Martinican culture; he was able to publish the journal in spite of the censors. That year Cesaire received a visit from the founder of surrealism, Andre Breton, who had read Cesaire’s poetry and crossed the Atlantic to try to convince him to join his movement. Under the influence of surrealism, Cesaire wrote his second collection of poetry, Miraculous Arms (1946), and later Sun Cut Throat (1948).

French Communism. Cesaire became active in regional politics and was elected mayor of Fort-de-France and deputy to the Constituent National Assembly on the French Communist Party ticket in 1945. He then successfully fought to have Martinique and Guadeloupe recognized as overseas departments of France, which, as scholar Janis Pallister explains, the Communists believed would give the islands greater power within the political system. Dividing his time between Paris and Martinique, in 1947 he became cofounder of another journal, African Presence, which published the works of black Francophone writers.

Politics and Poetry. During the 1950s and 1960s, Cesaire remained active in both politics and literature. He turned his attention to the African diaspora—the spread of African peoples throughout the New World due to the slave trade—in his poetry collection Lost Body (1950) and wrote several important political essays, including ‘‘Discourse on Colonialism’’ (1950) and ‘‘Letter to Maurice Thorez’’ (1956), the latter of which explains his break with the Communist Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. In 1957 he founded the Martinique Progressive Party, and in 1959 he participated in the Second Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Rome. While maintaining his duties as the elected deputy from Martinique to the French National Assembly in Paris, he wrote two collections of poetry on Africa and the slave experience, Iron Chains (1960) and Cadastre (1961).

Leaving Communism, Entering Theater. The year that Cesaire left the Communist Party coincides with his earliest experiment in drama, And the Dogs Were Silent (1956). He had turned to theater in an effort to make his literary themes more accessible. The play is adapted from a long poem of the same title that appeared at the end of Miraculous Arms, and clearly marks Cesaire’s transition from poetry to theater. Described by Cesaire as a ‘‘lyric oratorio,’’ according to scholar Clive Davis, the play features the surrealism of his poetry and is difficult to stage. It was aired as a radio drama in France, but unlike later plays, has not enjoyed revivals. Nevertheless, it was an important precursor to Cesaire’s later theatrical works.

Although And the Dogs Were Silent is a political play, its commentary remains largely on the level of allegory and is deliberately obscure. In contrast, Cesaire’s next dramatic efforts, the plays he calls his ‘‘political triptych,’’ comment more directly on specific historical situations of the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the context of postcolonial nationhood, leadership, and identity. The first of these plays, The Tragedy of King Christophe (1963) is also the first of Cesaire’s plays to be written expressly for the theater. It was directed by the avant-gardist Jean-Marie Serreau, who, as Davis reports, “master-minded the premiere production at the Salzburg festival’’ in 1964 ‘‘and subsequently took it to the Theatre de l’Odeon in Paris.’’ Cesaire’s relationships with French left-wing intellectuals and artists Michel Leiris and Pablo Picasso helped the play circumvent bureaucratic obstacles, and it was a huge success.

In The Tragedy of King Christophe Cesaire provides an ironic commentary on postcolonial leadership, beginning a commentary that he develops further in A Season in the Congo (1966). This second play of Cesaire’s political triptych recounts the rise, fall, and assassination of Congolese political leader Patrice Lumumba and the Congo’s declaration of independence from Belgian colonial rule. The play’s topical nature—including the Congo’s rise to independence as Zaire under the leadership of Lumumba, and its neocolonial subjection under an ambitious but corrupt leader—affected its production history: As Davis reports, the Belgian authorities tried to suppress the production of the play, which was first staged in Brussels. Cesaire’s supporters among the intellectuals of Paris intervened and, according to Davis, ‘‘succeeded in circumventing these obstacles.’’ When the play was staged in Paris under the direction of Serreau, Davis claims that it ‘‘provoked unease’’ among the ‘‘educated Zairian population.’’

Celebrated Author and Activist. After 1970 Cesaire published the third play of the political triptych, another volume of poetry, I, Laminary (1982), and several more political and historical essays. In 1982 French president Franyois Mitterrand appointed him president of the regional council for the French Overseas Departments, a position that allowed him to encourage the economic and cultural development of his native Martinique. In 1993 he retired from national political life in Paris to Fort-de-France, Martinique, which acknowledged the island’s debt to a great champion of its liberation and culture with a municipal celebration of his ninetieth birthday in 2003.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Cesaire's famous contemporaries include:

Edouard Glissant (1928—): Martinican writer who worked to help establish a unique Caribbean identity for people of African descent.

Jozef Garlinski (1913-2005): Polish historian, he was known for his popular books on World War II, including such best sellers as Fighting Auschwitz (1974).

Frantz Fanon (1925-1961): Martinican psychiatrist and author known for his studies of the effects of colonialism.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967): American poet who was one of the key figures in the Harlem Renaissance; he has been recognized as America's favorite poet in a survey by the Academy of American Poets.

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977): American civil rights leader, she was an influential voting rights activist who was instrumental as a facilitator of Mississippi's Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later as the Vice-Chairperson of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Mahalia Jackson (1912-1972): American gospel singer, she was regarded the best of the genre and considered the Queen of Gospel.

 

Works in Literary Context

Embracing African Culture and Rejecting Colonialism. Cesaire’s writing consistently investigates the personal and public themes of black social and political culture. His poetry and plays work to honor the black race and defend its solidarity. In his autobiographical poem, Return to My Native Land, Cesaire rejects European culture, accepting his African and Caribbean roots. Juxtaposing historical data, descriptions of nature, and dream imagery, he praises the contributions of the black race to world civilization. In what he describes as his ‘‘triptych’’ of plays, The Tragedy of King Christophe 1963), A Season in the Congo (1965), and A Tempest (1969), Cesaire again explores a series of related themes, especially the efforts of blacks—whether in Africa, the United States, or the Caribbean—to resist the powers of colonial domination.

His plays in particular oscillate between lyricism, realism, and allegory, manipulating the conventions of the theater to provide a general political commentary on racism, colonialism, and decolonization in the specific context of recurring themes: anger against colonial power; the painful memories of slavery and the middle passage; placing the West Indies within a global pan-African context; and the impossible situation of black political leadership in the age of decolonization. Hilary Okam of Yale French Studies further maintains that ‘‘it is clear from [Cesaire’s] use of symbols and imagery, that despite years of alienation and acculturation he has continued to live in the concrete reality of his Negro-subjectivity.’’

Influences. Locales, events, attitudes, writers, and writing helped shape Cesaire’s work. At the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris Cesaire began his lifelong study of American black writers, especially the Harlem Renaissance poets. With Senghor, Cesaire read and discussed the ethnologist Leo Frobenius’s History of African Culture (1933). With the 1941 visit from founding surrealist Andre Breton, Cesaire not only developed a style influenced by surrealism but wrote essays such as ‘‘Poetry and Knowledge’’ (1945) espousing the surrealist principle of poetry as a means of liberating subconscious truth.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Here are a few works by writers who have also succeeded in exploring identity in the context of political oppression and/or racism:

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (1992), a nonfiction work by Peter Hopkirk. This survey closely considers the ''great game'' played between czarist Russia and Victorian England for supremacy in central Asia.

Midnight's Children (1981), a novel by Salman Rushdie. The focused story of an Indian protagonist, born with 1,001 others on August 15, 1947, (India's Independence Day) amid magic realism and political turmoil.

Things Fall Apart (1959), a novel by Chinua Achebe. This novel depicts the story of colonialism and its invasive and destructive impact on Nigerian tribal culture.

This Earth of Mankind (1991), a novel by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Indonesian political dissident and novelist Toer offers an intriguing story of love and colonialism in turn-of-the-century Java.

 

Works in Critical Context

Early criticism was appropriately directed at Cesaire’s poetry and on his personal investment as a black French anticolonialist in search of true identity. Hilary Okam of Yale French Studies contends that ‘‘Cesaire’s poetic idiosyncrasies, especially his search for and use of uncommon vocabulary, are symptomatic of his own mental agony in the search for an exact definition of himself and, by extension, of his people and their common situation and destiny.’’ A poetic work demonstrating this is his first and best-regarded Return to My Native Land:

Return to My Native Land (1942). The concerns found in Return to My Native Land ultimately transcend the personal or racial, addressing liberation and selfawareness in universal terms. Critic Judith Gleason calls the work ‘‘a masterpiece of cultural relevance, every bit as ‘important’ as [T. S. Eliot’s] The Waste Land” and concludes that ‘‘its remarkable virtuosity will ensure its eloquence long after the struggle for human dignity has ceased to be viewed in racial terms.’’ Andre Breton, writing in What Is Surrealism?, also sees larger issues at stake in the poem. ‘‘What, in my eyes, renders this protest invaluable,'' Breton states, ‘‘is that it continually transcends the anguish which for a black man is inseparable from the lot of blacks in modern society, and unites with the protest of every poet, artist and thinker worthy of the name ...to embrace the entire intolerable though amendable condition created for man by this society.''

Writing in the CLA Journal, Ruth J. S. Simmons concludes that although Cesaire’s poetry is personal, he speaks from a perspective shared by many other blacks. ‘‘Poetry has been for him,’’ Simmons explains, ‘‘an important vehicle of personal growth and self-revelation, [but] it has also been an important expression of the will and personality of a people. . . . [It is] impossible to consider the work of Cesaire outside of the context of the poet's personal vision and definition ofhis art. He defines his past as African, his present as Antillean and his condition as one of having been exploited. ...To remove Cesaire from this context is to ignore what he was and still is as a man and as a poet.''

Cesaire’s plays have garnered as much international acclaim as his poetry. Serge Gavronsky stated in New York Times Book Review that ‘‘in the [1960s, Cesaire] was...the leading black dramatist writing in French.’’ Clive Wake, critic for the Times Literary Supplement, remarked that Cesaire’s plays have ‘‘greatly widened [his] audience and perhaps tempted them to read the poetry.'' Again touching upon political themes from the history of a postcolonial world, one such play of interest is A Tempest:

A Tempest, Based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest— Adaptation for a Black Theatre (1969). The title page of A Tempest announces its revisionary relationship with William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The title also advertises the overturning of what Janis Pallister calls the ‘‘master-slave dynamic’’ of that play: Cesaire keeps his promise and revises, racializes, and politicizes the relationships Shakespeare creates among Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban. His use of the phrase ‘‘black theater’’ is significant in its claim for a black transnational identity. A Tempest makes reference to the postcolonial relations of the French Caribbean and the metropole, the postcolonial struggles of Africa, and the struggles of the Black Power and civil rights movements in the United States.

A scholar for International Dictionary of Theatre summarizes the larger essence of Cesaire’s dramatic works: Contemporaneity is one of the great strengths of Cesaire’s theatre. But the contemporary is ephemeral. Even the traumas of decolonization will fade from the collective memory, ifthey have not already done so. Those of Cesaire’s plays which deal exclusively with this period of history will, perhaps, have less appeal for a broad public, despite the fact that they are accessible and attractive as theatre. A Tempest, which addresses the broader and more enduring question of cultural relativity, may consequently prove to be Cesaire’s most durable play.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Cesaire’s poetry is a mix of modernism and surrealism. What surrealistic characteristics can you identify in his poems? Compare his first work, Return to My Native Land, with one of his follow-up works. Is there a difference in the surrealist characteristics between the two? Explain.

2. One characteristic of Cesaire’s work involves the anger aimed at colonialism. Africans were frustrated with the inconsistencies, the clashing of ideals, the hypocrisies. Africans were unnerved by colonial efforts to assimilate them. As Cesaire defined it, ‘‘We didn’t know what Africa was. Europeans despised everything about Africa, and in France people spoke of a civilized world and a barbarian world. The barbarian world was Africa. ... Therefore, the best thing one could do with an African was to assimilate him: the idea was to turn him into a Frenchman with black skin.’’ Research colonialist assimilation of Africans. What areas of African life—education, religion, home and family—were impacted? How was African identity affected? What was nationalism? What were the motives behind assimilation efforts? Was conversion successful? What is Africa's place in the world today? If a group chooses to survey colonialism, each individual might take on a different aspect of colonialism and report back in order to better understand the history and concepts of colonialism.

3. For Native Americans from the 1900s through the 1960s involved coercive assimilation by the U.S. government. Many Native Americans experienced identity crises ‘‘due to the differences between cultures, values, and expectations of their tribal traditions and those of mainstream American social and educational systems,’’ says scholar Michael Tlanusta Garret. For Africans, colonialism had a similar dreadful effect. In a group effort, research the two cultures and the government movements that changed them. How are they similar? What did the white culture want from them? What life changes did each have in common? How did each respond to the invasion of governments? Who resisted? Who protested?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Arnold, Albert James. Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aime Cesaire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Breton, Andre. What Is Surrealism? Selected Poems. Ed. F. Rosemont. London: Pluto Press, 1978.

‘‘Aime (Fernand) Cesaire.’’ International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 2: Playwrights. Detroit: St. James Press, 1993.

Davis, Gregson. Aime Cesaire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Pallister, Janis L. Aime Cesaire. New York: Twayne, 1991.

Periodicals

CLA Journal, 22 (1978): 31-45, Marc-A. Christophe, “Totalitarianism and Authoritarianism in Aime Cesaire’s La Tragedie du roi Christophe;’’ (December 1986), Ruth J. Simmons review.

Comparative Literature Studies, 13 (September 1976): 240-53, Charlotte Brow, ‘‘The Meaning of Caliban in Black Literature Today.''

French Review, 46 (May 1973): 1101-1106, Herve Fuyet and others, ‘‘Decolonisation et classes sociales dans La Trageedie du roi Christophe.''

Negro Digest, (May 1968): 53-61, Judith Gleason, ‘‘An Introduction to the Poetry of Aime Cesaire.’’

New York Times Book Review (February 19, 1984): 14, Serge Gavronsky review.

Times Literary Supplement (July 19, 1985), Clive Wake review.

Yale French Studies, no. 46 (1971): 41-7; no. 53 (1976) Hilary Okam review.

Web sites

Books and Writers. Aime Cesaire (1913—). Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/cesaire.htm.

Ritz, Brooke. Postcolonial Studies at Emory: Aime Cesaire. Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Cesaire.html. Last updated Spring 2009.

 

Mary Challans

 

SEE Mary Renault