Thank you for inviting me to your home and to your festival. I also thank you for making Césaire the center of our wonderful activities, a man whose humanism and humanity continues to nurture and inspire many of us.
Today I want to convince you of three things in the name of Césaire. I know it’s a bit ambitious and I don’t have that much time, but I will try anyway. The first thing I want to convince you of is that we should transform the weapons used against us to mark the present; the second is that we should constantly study our material past to remake that present. If I succeed with the first two, perhaps I can convince you we should all use the new miraculous weapons, computers, to both mark and remake this present.
Césaire wrote most of his life on a typewriter or with a pen. His art was destined for the printed page, with the occasional stage or spoken word. Why didn’t he restrict himself to the oral traditions of the Africa and Caribbean he loved and channeled? He wrote in French. Why didn’t he write in Creole? I say he wanted to leave a mark on the present. That present was colonial, and not that different than today’s, despite what you hear. The book and the French language were tools of Empire, but Césaire would make miracles out of these weapons, transmuting them beyond their ordinary, yet toxic uses.
We heard M. [Serge] Letchimy on Friday remind us of Césaire’s desire to embed the black experience in the universal history of humankind. Césaire wasn’t alone. When he returned to his native land from his student years in Paris, where he had just finished the first version of his famous notebook, he partnered with other important intellectuals of the time—Suzanne Césaire, René Ménil, and Aristide Maugée—to found the journal Tropiques. Let me quote René Ménil in an article titled “Naissance de notre art” (Birth of our Art) on the first issue of the journal, published in April 1941, under the occupation of the Vichy regime.
Seuls, nous pouvons exprimer ce par quoi nous sommes uniques. Si nous ne voulons pas être seulement spectateurs de l’aventure humaine, si nous croyons qu’il faut payer de soi pour simplement participer à l’humanité véritable, si nous sommes persuadés qu’ici comprendre n’est rien et que c’est faire qui importe, nous savons quelle tâche nous incombe et quelle voie mène à sa réalisation.**
(We can express what makes us unique by ourselves. If we want to be more than just spectators of the human adventure, if we believe that authentic humanity comes with a cost, if we are convinced that to understand is still not as important as doing, we know our task and the way to see it through completion).
A universal “human adventure” is not the only way to imagine history, of course. It doesn’t have to be universal, a global club we join when we pass the grade. If you want an alternative to this way of looking at things, I recommend you read Édouard Glissant, also from Martinique. No matter, the young thinkers and artists of Tropiques wanted to believe in a shared humanity, as do I. They understood that a cultural, and by extension political, revolution was necessary if they were to join their imagined global dialogue as equals, and their chosen vehicle was print and French. Given their goals, their choice makes sense, a bundle of paper with French markings could travel farther than spoken Creole in the 1940’s.
But the choice was not only about convenience, these machines were also colonial machines. They had been brought to these lands by the colonizer. They were complicit in the catastrophes of centuries. These naughty machines were asking for an intervention. Césaire and his friends set out to do this in grand fashion under the watchful eyes of censors. They rented the colonial press, “les Imprimeries du Gouvernement,” secured paper and wrote and managed editorial work by stealing time away from their busy lives. They formed friendships with important writers living elsewhere and sent copies of their journal across the continent, from Buenos Aires to New York.
While all of this was happening Césaire began writing his first play, Et les chiens se taisaient (And the Dogs Were Silent). The manuscript of this play was lost to us until recently, when I found it, first in a footnote on the biography of Yvan Goll, one of Césaire’s early New York editors, and then in a small municipal library close to the border between France and Germany, where said editor went to die.
Césaire started writing this work as a historical drama based on the Haitian Revolution. After 20 pages of composition or so, he started making the character of Toussaint Louverture central to the action.
Césaire sent the finished manuscript to his friend André Breton, the famous surrealist writer, to get it outside of the island. Soon after, Césaire wanted the manuscript destroyed. It was too late, Breton had lent it to Goll, who never gave it back.
In 1946, after the war and censorship, Césaire’s first book of poetry, Les Armes miraculeuses (The Miraculous weapons), was published in Paris by Gallimard. The book contains a different version of Et les chiens *se taisaint *than the one in the manuscript. Although the new text contains about 80% of the text of the original manuscript, the text has been transformed enormously. All explicit references to the Haitian revolutions have been removed, Toussaint Louverture has become *Le Rebelle *(The Rebel), and about 70 or so blocks of text have been shifted in relative position to one another.
Texts have bodies. We who value the spoken know that texts are embodied. Texts migrate. They get sent by post, carried by trucks, now over wires. Texts change. Author’s revise them. Reader’s misread them. Texts fragment. You can copy and paste. No one is stopping you.
Et les chiens se taisaient started as a historical drama meant for a Martinique audience, it became a long poem published in Paris. In the 1950’s it became a play again, it became a radio-play. In the 1970’s it became a film. This was not rare for Césaire. All his major texts went through major changes, major migrations. The Cahier d’un retour au pays natal went through at least 4 major versions.
The first version could be called spiritual, the second and third surrealist, while the last one, with spirit and sex removed, political. When you speak of the Cahier d’un retour au pays natal which one are you talking about?
The simple act of studying the material past—the ink and binding of books, manuscripts waiting to be discovered, the revisions and ruses of writers—takes us on a path that changes our present. When we take that next step and decide to present that past to others, we remake what we know now. The point is to change it. Césaire, the man, can’t change himself anymore for the twenty-first century, but we can. In return, our Césaire, can continue to change us. Such is the human pact with the past.
I want you now to notice the tools I used to do and present my study, this little machine I have in front of me, the result of empire and ingenuity, of another great twentieth century thinker, Alan Turing, and of many other forces. If I want to present my Césaire to our century, I can’t afford to do it on paper alone. As we speak, a new way of reading and doing takes over the world. When I look at the past being remade on the internet, I cringe. Time for us to intervene again. On Friday we also heard from my friend Schuyler Esprit, who reminded us in so many words that culture is a round of returns, where we must eventually give back. Césaire, who cannibalized the weapons of his day to re-imagine history and art, returning everything he touched transformed, would approve.
If we take this challenge, we must understand that these new culture machines are very different than books. We must learn to understand them in order to transform them, as Césaire understood literature and print and transformed them. We do not forget about the lessons of print or the spoken word. But we cannot afford to be simple consumers of the new culture machines, “spectators of the human adventure” as Ménil would have it. If we are convinced that to understand is still not as important as doing, we know our task and the way to see it through completion.