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Edouard Glissant: Writing as Mangrove

Published in art press, no. 229, November 2000

"What I call Creolization is the encounter, the interference, the clash, the harmonies and disharmonies between cultures in the accomplished totality of the earth-world." So speaks the Martinique writer Edouard Glissant, whose latest essay, Le Traité du tout-Monde (Gallimard), pur­sues his inquiry into the "Creolization" of the world. In its call for rela­tion and participation as part of the process of constituting the identity both of peoples and individuals, Glissant's work seems to be inventing a genuine deviation of Eurocentric thought

I have chosen to unify a body of work that branches out into every genre (poetry, theater, novels, essays) around the symbolic image of a tree, the mangrove: that tentacular and pioneering plant which inaugu­rates dry land and reclaims It from the salt of the sea in Martinique as in Florida (in the space of the plantation) by sending out roots from its trunk into the sand. It is a moving sight, this plant throwing its shoots offshore, into the shallows, with an illusory fragility and precariousness: soon, an island, an archipelago will rise up where before there was only the surface of the sea under the crushing tropical humidity. It defies hurricanes with a patience that is liminary.

For Glissant has brought himself into being in his own archipelago of writing by a decision, a gesture, an inaugural courage: taking up his pen in a literary territory that no model had ever colonized. And anyone who reduces his oeuvre to a series of external determinants (slavery, colonial status, land, poverty, influences) just doesn't get it: Glissant exists only by being detached from any environment-even if this may mean returning to one in order to reveal that fact. He thereby mimes the violent separation from the motherland of Africa that the ancestors, the slaves, experienced, in blood and terror. In order to name the lost origin, to baptize what nobody had perceived, a radical excision was necessary. This was the price to be paid for the power of naming.

And now names grow in abundance, a luxuriant, virtuoso canopy of foliage, "names arising, not swollen in the memory of these hundred and fifty years fallen into the chasm, but, as if engendered by the slope, or perhaps secreted in the hole of the world's silent eye, or springing from the bottomless well where cannonballs turned into pearls in the entrails of the drowned" (Malemort)

There was no legitimate father, and therefore no son or daughter either. "He asked you who is your father and the father of your father all the way to the seventh line, and not one could answer, not one could say here is my descendant and the descendant of my descendant unto the time this earth turned into food and fertility." (Malemort). No mat­ter, a fictional one can be found, a first ancestor, a rebellious slave; "Odono, who came ashore in 1715" (Mahagony), whose patronymic is both a giver of meaning and the question mark that hangs over any genealogy. There was no longer any village, any landscape, or family, only the plantation shacks stingily apportioned by the master. No mat­ter, they can be invented, through and despite the suffering and muni­ficence of serfdom, through and despite the irrevocable pleasure and horror of being the master. And so, by a paradoxical reversal, the Cabin becomes the place of the commander.

There was no longer a Time06 Before: not to worry, it'll come back, more exact and more precise than any archive lost in the ineffectual manipu­lations of an administration. To decry the subsidized alienation of the islanders, and to pull clear of its oppressive legacy, we shall inaugurate new spaces of the whole world in a gigantic Babel, where men ex­change babbled sounds in all island-tongues. There was, it is true, a Word, the great Word of Aime Cesaire and a few others. But still other names had to be invented, all names had to be rewritten and spoken anew And, suddenly, all the defeats of existence are turned inside out, like a glove, in the pleasure of writing. There is, in this regard, no more optimistic a gesture than Glissant's: by crafting his oeuvre, he proves the infinite possibilities of a word that transcends its limits and he makes a gift of it for others to come.

The Very Figure of Subversion

The advocates of social-realism are always faulting these texts for their "obscurity": what they want to read is the reproduction of a "Marti­nique reality," a denunciation of the oppressor, an exaltation of the vic­tim, the picturesque pineapple'n'cane sugar genre holding hands with a humanism that universalizes and assimilates. Instead, they find opa­city that is asserted as such, a track leading to the world-less being that eludes all naming: a linguistic virtuosity worthy of Proust, of Céline, of Faulkner (that American, double/brother who produced the most pro­found images of the world of the plantation-see Faulkner, Mississip­pi); a totally new "Creole" syntax that turns our grammatical habits on their head. Speaking of which, few seem to notice that "French" litera­ture always renews itself by an operation carried out on syntax-see Montaigne, Racine, Céline-rather than on vocabulary-even if it is true that in Glissant's work Creole names are invited to a merry bout of copulation with those from metropolitan France: "Understanding per­haps in the future that it, would be necessary to hear change the word' and without trembling or caesura undertake the new language-which one?-and with labor and sweat and pain and in the drunkenness of the descent toss off its syntax in the grass on either side." (Malemort). They find, these condescenders of tradition, a poetic practice and theory that aim at once to equal, and sometimes to take on, the greats.

And there is the rub: this obstinate refusal to go for "local color," for murky realism, for social-realist censoring, for supermarket exoticism; this wrenching-away from all determinisms, except those of the poetic languages brought into play; this attention to the gesture of writing (but beware: here is none of the corseted formalism beloved of academics, but something much more complex and monstrously vital); this fully assumed obscurity which multiplies a hundredfold the possibilities of the language and the most subtle resources of an existential earth­quake. This idiom defies classification; in and through the work, uni­versity taxo-maniacs and third-worldist bourgeois (the same bunch) are hauled over the coals. Glissant points the way to a very different, unclassifiable path; all revolts imply the grandeur of a new language, and nothing is more upsetting for the false superiority of the former colonizer than the absolute mastery of the artistic means deployed, the tranquil assurance of a noble style that constitutes an implicit critique of all cant. The work can be measured against nothing but its own sha­dow and light and is thus the very figure of subversion. In this sense, any followers it has are there by virtue of a misunderstanding: ad­dressed to readers whom it creates as it progresses, it spurns all thought of disciples, the schoolmasterly rubber-stamping of critics. One by one, it takes us by the throat, like a boiling fever. All these easy pigeonholes-national literature, "French" clarity and plain good sense, the moaning of the victim and railing against oppression that is simply the aspiration to be a master-all are thrown briskly out of court.

There are no characters here: landscapes take their place, described with meticulous detail in their rhetorical efflorescence. The characters are defined only by their voices: all are made poets in their special domain, and this, only by obscure acts of approval or refusal. Like the novelist, those who people his work are defined by an act of speaking that is far above the necessities of communication. What is invoked here is the obsessional jouissance of existing through poetry. And this insistence on speaking is no illusion, no "poet's dream" or retreat into fantasy. On the contrary, Glissant shows that, if they are to exist, worlds must be named. There can be no "poetics of relations," no immersion in life's variety before it is all baptized. In this sense, Glissant is the heir of the great logothetes of the Western tradition-starting with those of the Old Testament-who have always known that saying had a found­ing function, but also that its legitimacy can be proved only in poetics.

All the Languages in the World

What Glissant brings forth in the name of "Creolization" here provides both practice and theory, the two being absolutely inseparable. But what are we to understand by "Creole"? First of all, a language in its own right, with its own syntax and grammar, unlike any other. Then, a language that had the vitality to create itself in a very short spell of time (one thinks of the emergence of vernaculars in the Middle Ages) and suddenly founded a community. From this emergence/creation at the crossroads of several different cultures, Glissant draws the necessity to make all the languages of the world dance together (Introduction à une poétique du divers). Creolization is the collision of all cultures, a col­lision with unpredictable results made possible by the globalization of communication. In the optimism and generosity of his Utopia, Glissant proposes a conversation between languages in which none has a privi­leged position, where reciprocal exchanges constantly create a new­ness whose place is never calculated in advance. That, according to him, is what distinguishes Creolization from cross-breeding, the results of which can be conjectured: "But this exploding sea, the Caribbean, and all the islands in the world, are Creole, that is to say unpredictable. And so are all the continents, whose coasts are incalculable." (Tout-Monde). Thus being is to be defined in terms of the practice of ex­change, of the rubbing-together of cultures, in terms of a self-assured poetics: "To speak of the world, embrace a language of shatterings driven over the seas like a silver net." (Malemort). Whereas imaginary identity has always been founded on exclusion (a trait which is by no means the prerogative of the West: think of Chinese or Japanese xenophobes, of the Pre-Columbian Sioux who called themselves "human beings" and of course excepted from this definition all those who were not members of the tribe, etc.), Glissant rises up to oppose the great fear of the outside. In this he comes at the end of a long Christian tra­dition, one to which he makes few references, but which enables him to move forward. In him there is an unconscious Pentecostal spirit, a vigorous breath in which every language is capable of truth: "To cre­ate, in any given language, presupposes that you are inhabited by the impossible desire for all the languages in the world. Totality is calling to us. All works of literature today are inspired by it." (Poétique de la relation)

And so one thinks back to the troubadours of the 12th century, who blended their tongues with others: of Raimbaut d'Orange, who mixed Latin and Provencal, of Raimbaut de Vaqueiras (Provencal, Italian French, Gascon and Gallo-Portuguese); of the founding texts of French literature which created ex nihilo the nobility of a poetic writing, start­ing with a slave language, which is what Old French originally was. One thinks, later, of Montaigne, that "half-breed, his ass between two stools." Glissant proves himself the very worthy heir of these great founders by poetically reviving the possibility of a limitless Word.

I shall conclude with a reservation. While in Glissant's work the motif of totality and the relativism of all cultures may not derive from some sap­py multiculturalism, they still arouse the same worries in the reader. Not because it can be said that Glissant is unaware of the suffering and violence of the world, but instead, and primarily, because there is nothing that is everything. The project of embracing the totality of beings necessarily belongs to the discourse of the Hegelian master, one that all history has taught us to distrust. In addition, imagining the dia­logue of the whole-world, the co-presence of all languages, may be an optimistic and noble notion, but it is mistaken in that it fails to address the respective tolerance of cultures. When there is nothing to transcend cultural particularities, we see murders provoked by the narcissism of small differences, the class and race genocides that have become the very unfortunate specialties of the 20th century. Once again, these his­torical mishaps are in no way peculiar to Westerners. Glissant admits this when talking about Creole itself, whose birth is inseparable from the violence of slavery (here, again, we see his Hegelian penchant). This modest homage ends, then, with a question mark, addressed to one of the greatest writers of the end of the millennium.

Translation, C. Penwarden

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