Introduction the Consequences of Ex-Centricity
Introduction the Consequences of Ex-Centricity
Abstract and Keywords
Taking as a point of departure the notion that critical appreciation of writers in the French–speaking Caribbean is connected to a given author's theoretical training in France, this introductory chapter examines what happens to writers — like Frankétienne, Fignolé, and Philoctète — who choose or are obliged to remain physically anchored in the space of their island. What are the consequences for those who refuse the voyage to Paris along with certain of the theory–centric underpinnings of literature this voyage implies? Further, in what ways might franco–theory–centric approaches be deployed in analyzing New World literature in French without abstracting or de–specifying regional or local traditions?
Ordinarily, we look at insularity as a mode of isolation, a sort of spatial neurosis. In the Caribbean, however, each island is an opening. The Inside-Outside dialectic recalls the Earth-Sea confrontation. It is only for those anchored to the European continent that insularity equals imprisonment. The Antillean imaginary frees us from suffocation.
In considering the most prevalent voices that figure in critical discussion of postcolonial literary production in the French-speaking Americas, one cannot help but notice the overwhelming presence of works by writer-intellectuals from France's overseas department of Martinique. While this phenomenon might be explained, to a certain extent, by the simple fact of the island nation's incorporation into the French state and consequent visibility with respect to Euro-North American academics and publishers,2 I would argue that there is something more subtle at play here as well. Specifically, it would seem that there exists an important correlation between the fact of the physical journey to Paris embarked upon by Martinique's most prominent writers and the production of an explicit, self-defining theoretical perspective—a perspective that effectively generates the principal intellectual frame within which the works of these writers can be read. In other words, by providing explicit interpretive foundations for their literary production, certain Martinican writers have effectively demanded scholarly engagement with their work; they have situated themselves physically and discursively with respect to the metropolitan center, and so have opened the door to a transatlantic dialogue dedicated to the theorization of their own aesthetic creations.
Given this very rewarding interaction between historical metropolitan center and (post)colonial periphery, it is crucial to think about the consequences of ex-centricity—of not-Paris—for francophone writers of the Americas. Taking as my point of departure the notion that critical appreciation of writers in the French-speaking Caribbean is meaningfully (p.2) connected to a given author's theoretical training in France, I consider what happens to those writers—like Frankétienne, Fignolé, and Philoctète—who choose or are obliged to remain physically anchored in the space of their island. What are the consequences for those who refuse the voyage to Paris along with certain of the theory-centric underpinnings of literature this voyage implies? Further, in what ways might franco-theory-centric approaches be deployed in analyzing New World literature in French without abstracting or de-specifying regional or local traditions? These are the questions that interest me here. To be clear, I do not want to suggest that theory in the French-speaking world is or should be the exclusive province of white Europeans, or that the writers of the French-speaking Caribbean have not added immensely to literary conversations on both sides of the Atlantic. Nor do I seek to cement facile binaries of center and margin. On the contrary, I myself implicate the theoretical interventions of French-speaking Caribbean writer-intellectuals throughout my own work, and I readily acknowledge that the processes of dialogue and exchange between Europe and the Americas have been and continue to be productive and self-interrogating. I recognize, moreover, that these are questions that have been and might still be posed in a wider context. The extent to which (former) empires are or need to be concerned with their positioning vis-à-vis (former) imperial centers is at issue throughout the postcolonial world, implicating as it does questions of “legitimation,” borrowing Bourdieu's terminology, and dissemination of the literary text. In (formerly) colonized nations where an indigenous publishing infrastructure and reading public are largely absent, the question of who evaluates and assigns value to aesthetic production is a necessarily thorny one. Finally, neither the preceding remarks, nor the analyses to follow, mean to imply that theorizing precludes aesthetic engagement—that creativity and explicit ideology are entirely antithetical. Rather, I am interested here in considering the very fact or practice of theory as it pertains to the canonization of postcolonial voices in the French-speaking American islands—the “meta-” consequences and conditions of inclusion in or exclusion from a pre-existing French/francophone discursive space.
The Attractions of Francophonie
Until about five decades ago, the world counted 47 nations whose language was officially French and over which France was politically (p.3) sovereign. Indeed, France exerted enormous cultural and political influence over an extensive array of territorial possessions during much of the twentieth century. The establishment of France as la mère patrie—and of Paris as her glorious center—in the hearts and minds of many of the empire's colonial subjects was the result of a very particular and deliberate strategy. That is, while the primary ambitions of the imperial agenda were unquestionably military positioning and economic expansion into extra-European territories, the promulgation of francophonie—a policy of psycho-cultural boundary-extension—was a clear secondary objective: “brown people into Frenchmen,” as it were. As the exploitative practices of French imperialism became less and less tolerable, however, so too were the values inherent in francophonie increasingly called into question by colonial intellectuals and writers. Paradoxically, the contestatory discourse produced by France's colonial subjects very often emerged from within the geographic center of the nation's colonizing project—that is, from Paris. Synecdochal signifier of empire, France's capital city was necessarily a site of acute ambivalence and profound irony—of the Audre Lorde variety.3 It was in Paris, of course, that so many tools of the intellectual trade—tools that would be employed in the proverbial dismantling of the master's house—were first picked up, plunging legions of colonial and tentatively postcolonial intellectuals into a schizophrenic double bind. How exactly could these individuals carve out a psychological or political anti-coloniality within yet without this seductive metropolis? How exactly were they to negotiate this space where, on the one hand, the oppressive, assimilationist, and otherwise troubling ideologies of French imperialism originated and, on the other, where many of the most useful technical and aesthetic means of self-expression were initially revealed? In other words, while Paris inevitably represented the ethos of imperialist subjugation toward which the alienated (post)colonial individual's resentment and frustration was to be most logically directed, it was also the space of that individual's apprenticeship—the space out of which a subversive perspective was often first formulated. A decidedly uncomfortable cornerstone of literary production and apparent inevitability for the francophone elite, Paris has served at once as a space of painful disillusionment, productive self-interrogation, and community-building catharsis.
The path toward relative “post-” coloniality has meant, then, the creation of a very unusual set of circumstances for politically and creatively progressive writers of the French-speaking Caribbean. Without the territorial rootedness of sub-Saharan Africans or the pre-existing (p.4) literate cultures of North Africa and Asia, and without a collective ontology that predates colonialism, Afro-Caribbeans in general have had to be particularly wary of the poisoned apple Paris might represent. Indeed, among the diverse peoples of France's (former) empire, the writer-intellectuals of the French-speaking Caribbean have been uniquely troubled by this existential quandary; and those of the French Antillean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe—“a region that since 1945 has seemingly defied the historical trend of decolonization to become ever more closely tied to its French colonizers” (Nesbitt, Voicing Memory 3)—have found themselves in an even more ambivalent position. In a dis - cussion of the 1921 novel Batouala, for eaxmple, Régis Antoine comments on Guyanese-Martinican4 author René Maran's fundamental faithfulness to the “ensemble of values that proceed from secular humanism … from a certain idea of universal progress that itself emerged from the spirit of the Enlightenment, and thus from a certain faith in man. Worldview that validated, of course, the equation: colonization = civilization” (Littérature 155). While I certainly do not want to suggest that Antilleans writing a half-century or more after Maran exhibit an equally profound alienation, I do want to insist that the underlying complexity has by no means disappeared. It persisted. It persists. The fundamental notion of Paris, France, as a simultaneously inclusive/including and exclusive/excluding center has been nuanced and reformulated, manifesting in the literary choices of several of the most celebrated mid and later twentieth-century writers of the French-speaking American islands. Called upon to insert themselves into an intellectual space from which, historically, they have been excluded, these writers found themselves sharpening their revolutionary horns during their provisional exile in Paris while endeavoring mightily to remain alert to the trap of cultural assimilation.
Whereas the difficulty of negotiating this complex dynamic is certainly well known to scholars of postcolonial literature, what has been less thoroughly considered is how the very framework in which the relationship between France and its (former) American empire unfolds might have impacted regional canon-formation. Indeed, one of the less-acknowledged ways in which a metropolitan influence pervades the literary universe of the French-speaking Caribbean is made manifest by the exceptional amount of theory generated within the region and embraced by the Euro-North American critical machine and academy. In literary responses to the particular socio-political realities of postcolonialism, francophone Caribbean writer-theorists have traditionally balanced a creative and a critical impulse, dedicating themselves as much to the (p.5) production of poetry and prose fiction as to articulating a discursive space within which to appreciate these “primary” texts. For many, an ideological agenda is explicitly laid out in theoretical essays and then implicitly (and often not-so-implicitly) confirmed in the context of their creative writings. As Cilas Kemedjio quite rightly points out in De la négritude à la créolité, “each generation of writers attempts to impose a prescriptive model in an institutional context where literature consistently posits itself as a component of the quest for solutions to socio-political malaise” (11). Roger Toumson echoes this notion in the first volume of La Transgression des couleurs, describing Afro-Antillean literature as “an ensemble of works belonging to the same diachrony, having as principle objective the same psycho-social problematic … a discourse that, constructing itself as a system, comments on its own construction, and that, as it forms, offers a commentary on its own formation” (105). I would argue that this implicit reliance on theory for authorization—this systematization of critical paradigms—risks shoring up the very forces of containment against which the formerly colonized intellectual is meant to have been writing.
Of course, the formulation of these indigenous theoretical perspectives should not merely be seen as a phenomenon of unreflective subaltern mimicry. An indisputably subversive impulse motivates the practices of writing and theorization from and in (former) French colonies. Francophone Caribbean intellectuals are indeed deeply committed to pushing the limits of French theory—to politicizing, radicalizing, and otherwise structurally defying French-European theoretical models. Moreover, to create art in the postcolonial Caribbean is, in and of itself, to declare an autonomous subjectivity; it is a process of establishing psycho-social creative strength that is then buttressed by the production of corresponding theoretical constructs.5 As Nick Nesbitt asserts in the preface to Voicing Memory, his masterful study of the francophone Antillean appropriation of French-determined theoretical models, the production of literature serves a critical function in the French-speaking Caribbean and has historically been the means by which writers of the region have proclaimed a certain intellectual and aesthetic empowerment. The writers Nesbitt considers, with the exception of the Haitian-American Edwige Danticat, are all “products of Parisian training in the Sciences humaines between 1930 and 1980” (xiv). They are so many eager students from the Afro-Americas encountering Frobenius, Lévi-Strauss, Hegel, Marx, Sartre, et al. and then putting them in the service of their own subversive agendas.
(p.6) While it is undeniable that these Parisian encounters bore nourishing fruit for the process of postcolonial disalienation, I would argue that the phenomenon has also produced a number of problematic attendant realities. In ways that subtly—but, I think, meaningfully—recall the blatant assimilationism of the doudouiste poets and the bourgeois elite's shipping off of its most promising youth to Paris, the extensive theorization of literature and culture by creative writers can, at least to some degree, be considered a legacy of a dependent relationship to imperial France. And this situation is particularly noticeable in the case of Martinique, France's principal overseas department—its postcolony. From the 1930s to the present day, writers from Martinique have been very much focused on constructing a theoretical space for their works and for their aesthetic philosophies in a literary canon-to-come6—a theoretical space that would rigorously exclude any perspectives that smacked of assimilationism or alienation. The Martinican student editors of the 1932 magazine-manifesto Légitime défense, for example, dedicate several essays to denouncing the assimilationist tendencies of the national bourgeoisie, its writers in particular. Using virulent caricatural descriptions, Jules Monnerot mercilessly derides those “raised in the cult of fraudulence … who, after their secondary studies, go to France to try, generally with success, to ‘earn’ the title of ‘Doctor,’ that of ‘Master,’ and so on … They show themselves to be desperate to conform to the ways and character of the majority of their European condisciples” (4). Maurice-Sabas Quitman angrily laments the fact that “the French Lesser Antilles have, for centuries, so assimilated the lessons of French civilization that black Antilleans are now incapable of thinking other than like white Europeans” (7). The authors' sincere outrage and impassioned condemnation of such unconcealed assimilationism is somewhat ironic, however, considered in the light of the magazine's political and theoretical underpinnings. Written and published in Paris in French, Légitime défense is, in large part, a resounding pledge of allegiance to the political and aesthetic platforms of Marxism and Surrealism. The entirety of the magazine's political content is expressed in the language of these European ideologies, and the pages of poetry that close the issue are replete with the provocative juxtapositions and abstract imagery of the French avantgarde.
Contemporary of the Légitime défense writers, Martinican poet Aimé Césaire similarly walked the line between anti-assimilationism and obligatory francophonie in his articulation of Negritude. His intellectual life in Paris was marked by an affiliation with African intellectual Léopold (p.7) Sedar Senghor with whom, among others, he participated in the shortlived activist journal L'Etudiant noir. The writers of this magazine distanced themselves from the Légitime défense group, criticizing the latter as fundamentally bourgeois and assimilated. To some extent more self-aware, perhaps, than his compatriots at Légitime défense, Césaire explicitly confessed to the ironic parameters of his intellectual existence. His well-known description in Cahier d'un retour au pays natal of his own cowardly self-distancing from the miserable black man he encounters on a tramway reveals his vulnerability to the almost irresistible temptations of Frenchness—of non- (and even “anti-”) blackness. Césaire admits to his latent Francophilic aspirations and uses this confession as a catalyst for the formulation of a purified Pan-African identity. Despite this committed Afrocentrism, however, Césaire nonetheless integrated both Marxism and Surrealism into his formulation of Negritude, establishing a firm ethno-literary platform for his movement in the pages of Tropiques, the journal he founded upon his return to Martinique and published between 1941 and 1945. As is the case with Légitime défense, several of the essays in Tropiques are based on a condemnation of the imitative aesthetic practices of nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Martinican bourgeois writers.
Césaire's role in facilitating Martinique's transition from colony to department of France in 1946 made him in turn an easy target for younger generations of anti-colonialist Martinican writers. Though as a student in Martinique Edouard Glissant, for example, had participated in the electoral campaign that made Césaire mayor in 1945, he would later propose his own theoretical ideology, antillanité, in the place of a Negritude he felt belonged to the socio-historical past. “Negritude,” Glissant asserts,
corresponded to a particular historical situation and to a period when, the African states not yet being independent, cultural activity for Blacks amounted to a sort of cry—to a brutal revindication of the dignity of being and creating. Today, when African politics have entered into a phase of active construction, we must give a constructive content to our cultural combat. (cited in Ormerod, “Beyond ‘Negritude’” 361)
At the time he wrote these words, Glissant had already spent several years as a student and political activist in Paris, publishing his first prose work, Soleil de la conscience, while there. In this long essay, Glissant describes his Parisian experience as an enlightening period out of which he had emerged better equipped to appreciate his Afro-Antillean identity. He makes absolutely no mention of Césaire's influence on this coming to consciousness, despite the fact that, as Antoine somewhat sarcastically (p.8) notes, “Tropiques undoubtedly helped to pull together and nourish the first thoughts of a Frantz Fanon, of a Georges Desportes, maybe even of an Edouard Glissant, before the latter ended up determining that it made sense to enroll in a program for ethnographic studies in Paris” (190).
In their 1989 manifesto, Eloge de la créolité, Creolist writers Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant and linguist Jean Bernabé similarly established themselves as having moved beyond the offerings of their predecessors. Although their essay dutifully acknowledges the steppingstone usefulness of both Césaire and Glissant, the Creolists treat Negritude as outmoded and antillanité as inaccessible. Perhaps the most directive of the writer-theorists discussed here, the Creolists unabashedly proclaim créolité the most relevant contemporary aesthetic philosophy of the (French-speaking) Caribbean. Their manifesto, which “began life as a talk presented in the suburbs north of Paris” (Gallagher 21), and subsequent critical writings on créolité—among them Confiant's rather combative denunciation of “papa Césaire,” titled Aimé Césaire: une Traversée paradoxale du siècle—lay out what amount to a number of specific criteria for postcolonial francophone political and literary authenticity. In this, the authors adopt patently and somewhat troublingly Franco-European rhetorical strategies. Saint Lucian poet and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott argues that “[n]othing is more French than the confident rhetoric of this manifesto. It echoes, in its emphatic isolation, all those pamphlets outlining programs for a new painting, a new poetry, that erupt from metropolitan ferment, and that, reaching out to embrace a public, baffle it by their vehemence” (224). Although, like Césaire and Glissant, the Creolists maintain a principled distance from Paris, the prestigious French literary prizes they have received—including a Goncourt for Chamoiseau and a Novembre for Confiant—attest to a firmly rooted presence in the European spotlight.
Thus from the fervent and outraged young editors of Légitime défense, to Negritude poet Aimé Césaire, to champion of antillanité (and, more recently, Relation) Edouard Glissant and his self-styled successors, the manifesto-writing Creolists, Martinican writers have consistently made a point of calling into question the usefulness of their predecessors' philosophies in realizing postcolonial objectives. Enjoying a quasicelebrity status determined to a certain extent by Euro-North American arbiters of social and aesthetic value, these writers have engaged in “the type of academic one-upmanship that is so common in the lively debates surrounding postcolonial criticism and, particularly, theory today” (Huggan 2, emphasis mine). In the case of all these writers, there is a (p.9) fundamental questioning of the relationship between the Antillean elite and Paris, as site and as symbol. Indeed,
throughout the region, the notion of the writer as maroon exerts a kind of gravitational pull of the literary sensibility and recurs with remarkable regularity … All of these writers are essentially making the same point about the need to transcend the hierarchical, the fixed, the linear in dealing with the region's collective experience. (Dash, “World” 115)
Yet while each of these intellectuals expresses an awareness of the dangers of cultural assimilation and subsequently endeavors to craft the most Caribbean-centric discourse possible, they all nonetheless play out their subversion within a frame that remains unchallenged on the most fundamental level. That is, to whatever extent these authors question France's colonial and postcolonial behavior and criticize her racist, xenophobic, assimilationist ideologies, they all engage with the former imperial power on her own terms, implicitly affirming the designation of theory “in Western academies [as] the most prestigious and valued mode of production” (Miller 7). Thus while the majority of these Antillean writers explicitly rebuff the recuperative snares of francité, none thoroughly investigates the degree to which the act of theorizing, in and of itself, in many ways replicates practices codified in metropolitan France. They tacitly accept France's conception of herself as the authoritative theory-producing power, and so have relied heavily on the practice of theory as the most efficacious means of inserting themselves into that power structure.
This image of French theoretical pre-eminence is, of course, part of a broader phenomenon. As Lawrence Kritzman has pointed out in “A Certain Idea of French,” New World academics have similarly venerated French intellectualism, making French departments
the “in” place to be … the locus of intellectual ferment and the center of avant-garde critical thought in the American university. Most everyone in other humanities programs and the humanistic social sciences suffered from French theory anxiety. French thought … became an object of intellectual fetishism. From the 1960s on, French criticism became associated with “theory.” (146)
Mary Gallagher goes on to draw an explicit connection between such “fetishism” and the embedding of Antillean writers in the university system of the United States. She confirms that the “American academy has, since the late 1970s at least, been noticeably in thrall to French literary and cultural theory, and in the late 1980s and 1990s, postcolonial theory notably.” She continues: “That French Caribbean writers who have associated themselves or who have been associated with ‘theory’ should be courted by the US academy cannot, therefore, be (p.10) regarded as unexpected” (265). This incorporation of self-theorizing writers into the North American university system—a process both confirmed and facilitated by the publication of texts and awarding of prizes in France—creates a somewhat awkward dynamic. Indeed, as Nesbitt also acknowledges in Voicing Memory, “while the critique of exploitation at the heart of decolonization received perhaps its most original and developed formulation among Antillean thinkers, the region's dependency upon the French metropolis short-circuited the practical implementation of this critique” (3). Looking closely at this paradox, it would seem that greater attention need be paid to the specific, if subtle, means by which the former imperial center recovers certain ostensibly subversive discourses.
We might return to the fact that Antillean theoretical practices have tended toward a rather unsatisfying adherence to very Western, post-Enlightenment notions of progress and absolute truth, so much so that a distinctly evolutionary literary trajectory has become apparent in the regional literary tradition. Indeed, among the more disturbing effects of the postcolonial (Antillean) emphasis on theory has been a propensity toward a locally cannibalizing auto-canonization—this phenomenon whereby successive generations of writer-intellectuals “define their liberatory enterprise by anathematizing previous generations of Caribbean authors” (Bongie, Islands 352). It is readily apparent that each of the multiple systematizing theoretical neologisms that emerges from Martinique declares itself a departure from and advancement with respect to its precursors. As a result, twentieth-century literary production in the French-speaking Caribbean has consistently been marked by a process of building up and tearing down—of “space-clearing,” to use Anthony Appiah's formulation (149)—and the subsequent creation of a de facto canon. This positing of the theoretical perspectives of particular authors as replacements for and/or improvements on those of their predecessors has also been adopted by many of us who theorize this literature. Beverly Ormerod's “Beyond ‘Negritude’: Some Aspects of the Work of Edouard Glissant,” for example, is an insightful article whose very title reveals a certain foregrounding of linearity and advancement. Her reflections on Glissant's contributions to regional letters open with a paragraph-long appeal to move forward from Césaire's Negritude and Fanon's Africa-oriented discourse. Making what is again a revealing language choice, Ormerod writes, “In place of négritude, Glissant offers in his poetry, novels, and theater a new world view” (362, emphasis mine). This is an attitude that recalls, to a certain extent, Sartre's positioning (p.11) of Negritude as a counter-assertion to be recuperated by a Hegelian dialectic of cultural progression.
This progression-based canon is one that (we) scholars of the region's literature have done much to cement without perhaps being sufficiently attentive to what non-theorizing voices from the region “bring to the table” through the sheer fact of their creative writings. We have had a tendency, that is, to encourage—if not to expect—postcolonial New World writers to write books and then to write books about the books they write. While this is not uniquely a (francophone) Caribbean reality, it is nonetheless particularly ironic given, as I have noted above, the wholesale upending of Eurocentrism aimed for by these writer-intellectuals. German philologue and ethno-linguist Ralph Ludwig's mini-anthology of francophone Caribbean writings on orality and literature, Écrire la parole de nuit, offers a fascinating example of this persistent pairing of theory and practice. The eight writers who contribute to the volume—writers whose “success” is confirmed in Ludwig's introduction by the fact that “they have obtained important literary prizes or are already translated into other languages” (14)—each provide a work of short fiction as well as a corresponding theoretical essay (the exception to this is, interestingly, Guadeloupean woman writer Gisèle Pineau, who does not offer a theoretical text). Here, then, we have a quite striking instance of this juxtaposition of showing and telling so prevalent in the domain of francophone letters.
These are phenomena that have not gone unnoticed, of course. As Annie Le Brun remarks in the context of her passionate, if hyperbolic, defense of Aimé Césaire slash pen-lashing of the Creolists, Statue coucoupé,7 there is often on the part of francophone Caribbean postcolonial writers a hyper-awareness of the importance of Western theoretical approbation. In “Critique Afrocentrique de la créolité,” scholar Ama Mazama, comments on the latent Eurocentrism of the Creolist project, denouncing what she considers to be the authors' premature relegating of Césairean Negritude to a socio-historical moment past/passed in the interest of establishing themselves globally as the modern-day bearers of Antillean cultural values. And in a well-known 1993 essay, “Order, Disorder, Freedom, and the West Indian Writer,” Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé contends that specific directive discourses have, in many respects, supplanted literary tradition in the francophone Caribbean ever since the birth of Indigenism and Negritude. As each of these scholars has rightly noted, literary culture of the twentieth-century Frenchspeaking Caribbean has been largely dominated by certain figureheads (p.12) of francophonie—individual authors or socio-aesthetic philosophies who claim (or are granted) the role of “representative” at any given time, for any given time. This “star-system,” to evoke Charles Forsdick and David Murphy's succinct expression, creates “a risk, therefore, that just as (Anglophone) Postcolonial Studies has been dominated by certain theoretical or regional paradigms, so might the fully diverse potential of Francophone Postcolonial Studies be eclipsed by prominent trends in scholarship” (Forsdick and Murphy 12)—trends initiated by a closed group of Antillean writers and then promoted by Western academics as both exemplary and broadly applicable.
Concomitant with this scripting of explicitly delineated, evolutive theoretical models is the problematic side effect of transparency. Indeed, theoretical guidelines propose a specific manner of reading; they go beyond neutral presentation to provide a particular path to accessing a text. Like introductions, as considered from a Foucauldian perspective à la Richard Watts in the introduction to his excellent study Packaging Postcoloniality, theory “helps the receiver of the text decode it” (1), and so risks exercising “a form of discursive control,” “limiting and disciplining what might otherwise be a liberated discourse” (2). In its laudable efforts to multiply interpretation and understanding, theory also mitigates what might otherwise be the productive anxieties that the reader experiences when confronted with the bound and meaning-full entity that is the book, particularly within what is meant to be a particularly subversive context. I mean to suggest that inasmuch as these Caribbean writer-theorists have provided European and North American academics/critics with the interpretive tools with which to decipher and appreciate their own creative works, they have allowed for a somewhat excessive legibility. As Françoise Lionnet has observed,
The tendency in France seems to be more toward “integrating” the complex ethnic, cultural, and discursive patterns of both the French and the francophone corpus under the broader umbrella of francophonie, as does an influential anthology. Francophone writers who get anointed by Parisian publishing houses and receive critical acclaim followed by major literary awards are the ones who make it into the canon of contemporary literature, and their works generally get subsumed under established national, aesthetic, or formal categories. That is, they become legible in terms of such categories instead of providing an opportunity for a radical rethinking of the existing parameters of formal, let alone cultural, analysis. (“Francophonie” 260–61)
This transparency would seem to contradict stated efforts to focus inward, regionally, and to maintain opacity—the term is Glissant's, of course—in the face of European and North American universalist (p.13) presumptions. One might worry, then, that the process of critically engaging with the metropolis accounts for a too-important share of the raison d'être of this “peripheral” literature.
It is a peculiar paradox that these islands have been at the forefront of a tradition of “writing back” to a centre of which they are supposed to form an integral part … It is no doubt because of, rather than despite, this double bind, that Martinique, the most fully assimilated of the Overseas Departments, and an island which has no political or institutional claim to the word “post-colonial,” has produced some of the key theorists of this expanding academic area. (McCusker 113)
These ironies present themselves, of course, beyond the boundaries of the French-speaking world and evoke more general postcolonial grapplings with Enlightenment-faithful notions of cultural authority. They underlie, for example, Graham Huggan's articulation of a “postcolonial exotic” as the capitalism-friendly commodification of recuperated oppositional discourses. Huggan interrogates what he dubs the “mediating roles of postcolonial writers/thinkers” (viii) who intervene critically in order to render (their own) marginal texts legible to post-imperial metropolitan centers—texts that end up, then, at once countering and contained by the market-driven system that frames both the “culture industry” of alterity and the “transnationally conceived academic field” (x) of postcolonial studies. The postcolonial intellectuals identified by Huggan find themselves subtly mainstreamed,8 collaborating with those they seek to undermine, and resembling in this way nothing so much as Elie Kédourie's embattled “marginal men” or Appiah's “comprador intelligentsia”—the “relatively small, Western-style, Western-trained, group of writers and thinkers, who mediate the trade in cultural commodities of world capitalism at the periphery” (240). It is my contention, then, that the codification of even insularly generated theoretical perspectives risks recuperating these non-hexagonal francophone discourses and leaving Eurocentric epistemologies largely intact while, even more distressingly, excluding important ex-centric voices.
The Haitian “Situation”
The ambivalent adherence to the notion of theory as authorizing center for the Martinican writers discussed above is, I would argue, at least in part responsible for a certain sidelining of other regional writers. In other words, the “big voices” of Césaire, Glissant, and the Creolists have in some respects come to drown out other, less “fêted” (Gallagher 9)—but (p.14) equally provocative—contributions insofar as earning global critical recognition is concerned. Condé's aforementioned essay and Lionnet's Autobiographical Voices both take this phenomenon into consideration, focusing on what the formation of a regional canon that includes almost exclusively male Martinican writer-intellectuals has meant for women writers of the Caribbean. Departing from a not-unrelated questioning of processes of in- and exclusion, I consider here the consequences of a “theory-less,” “not-Paris” ethos for Haiti and its literature.
To begin with, Haiti's writers have been quite explicitly set apart by their Antillean compatriots. That is, writer-intellectuals of the French Caribbean departments have exhibited a decided uneasiness as far as Haitian literature is concerned. As francophone scholar Régis Antoine points out, Haiti's creative reliance on elements characterized as non-Cartesian by early twentieth-century discourses of Antillean resistance have in the past kept the island republic somewhat on the outskirts of a regional francophone affiliation.
Up until 1940, caught up in their concerns with issues of identity, young Antillean intellectuals were not at all prepared to study myth and the imaginary, priority having been given to ideology and to poetics. Take, for example, the image that they created of Haiti, which they reduced to the land of vodou and first site of the victorious emergence of Negritude, thus ignoring the ensemble of peasant based popular culture … ignoring the Haitian novels that spoke precisely the ‘dramas of the land,’ ignoring Indigenism. Fifty years later, René Ménil again noted that suspiciousness about all that seemed to resemble folklorization, and that resulted … as much in lacunae in anthropological knowledge as in a legitimate refusal of exoticism. (Littérature 188)
While one might argue that Negritude likewise sought a revalorization of a non-French cultural agenda not far removed from the Haitian Indigenist perspective, the former movement nonetheless placed itself within a familiar rhetorical frame—a quasi-manifesto-founded cry of resistance in the Cahier and Tropiques, bolstered by an aesthetic alliance with Surrealism and the much-celebrated friendship/patronage of André Breton. As Nick Nesbitt has so accurately affirmed, “Césaire was inextricably bound to the culture he critiqued” (121).9 In other words, whereas Negritude's content was unquestionably counter-cultural, its fundamental structure reflected contemporary French paradigms of avant-garde self-expression.
Insofar as the academic community is concerned, the Haitian republic has also quite clearly been marked by a limiting geo-political and literary exceptionalism, its writers largely ghettoized by the fact of Haiti's exceptional history. On the one hand, scholars often evoke the broad symbolic (p.15) resonance of Haiti's revolution in the wider world, noting the extrainsular relevance of the principles of universal freedom for which the Haitians fought. Indeed, as Michael Dash has argued, “it is through Haiti that we can grasp the inescapable historical nature of the other America and the first Caribbean experiment with a foundational poetics and a collective self-invention in the face of the colonial refusal to grant opacity to the subjugated other” (Other America 42). At the same time, however, postcolonial theorists have tended to emphasize the uniqueness of this event and, in so doing, to place Haiti outside of discussions of regional literature and culture. The island republic is thus caught up in what Benítez-Rojo labels “the argument between those who argue that centripetal forces are stronger than centrifugal ones in the Caribbean and those who think the opposite; that is, the old unity/diversity debate.” (37). Martin Munro describes this phenomenon of exceptionalizing marginalization as the paradoxically constraining “excess of history” (Exile 108) that forever marks Haiti as schizophrenically failed with respect to itself, and irrevocably different with respect to its neighbors. Indeed, while scholars have become increasingly committed to the critical cultivation of a regional unity among the various islands of the Americas, and particularly among those connected by a common colonial language, Haiti stands apart. Ever since its seizing of independence, the island nation has been perceived as an absolute anomaly—its past, present, and future readable almost exclusively through the lens of the seminal moment of its revolution. This violent and spectacularly transgressive claiming of black sovereignty in 1804 has effectively destined Haiti to the status of shining example for its sympathizers, and cautionary tale for its detractors. The nation has thus found itself at once glorified as “the land where Negritude stood up for the first time” (Césaire, Cahier 24), and then vilified and pitied as “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” From either perspective, Haiti's cultural presence on the world stage has been marginalized as the spatio-temporal site of a neverending story of carnage and brutality. In both present-day and historical evocations of the revolution, the narrative is one of “barbarism and unspeakable violence, outside the realm of civilization and beyond human language. It is an excessive event” (Fischer 4). Valerie Kaussen argues that “the ‘problem with Haiti’ is not its imputed belatedness and difference, but rather the incompatibility of current Caribbean postcolonial theories of creolization, multiculturalism, and hybridity with Haitian histories of decolonization, revolution, and militancy … In this critical context,” she insists, “the continuing tradition of the Haitian (p.16) Revolution can only be approached negatively or not approached at all.” (18) As Dash also asserts, “the Republic of Haiti, independent longer than any of the countries discussed in The Empire Writes Back and presumably wrestling with a post-colonial reality since 1804, inexplicably gets short shrift” (“Postcolonial” 231).10 Thus while the revolution marked an aggressive bid on the part of the newly independent Haitians for inclusion in a global—if reconfigured—world order, the event has had an ironically isolating effect on Haiti's positioning with respect to other parts of the Caribbean.
There can be no question, of course, but that the Haitian Revolution represents a singular event in New World—indeed, in human—history. It marks the ultimate postcolonial gesture of refusal11—“ex-centric” act par excellence—and is the critical move (and by that, of course, I mean both essential and fault-finding rather than theoretical) of Haitianity. But Haiti's black leaders were not interested in constructing “an isolated African-American enclave that could have played no role in world affairs” (Genovese 88). They envisioned full “participation in the mainstream of world history rather than away from it” (92). The act of writing in the island nation thus reflects both a principled exceptionality and a “strategy for achieving recognition in a modern global culture” (Dash, Other America 46). Maximilien Laroche nicely captures this relationship between Haiti's literary ambitions and its revolutionary past:
If there must be a redefinition of the Haitian man, that is what Haitian literature dreams of, it can only be crafted in conjunction with the entirety of the Caribbean and the Americas … Haitian literature concerns not only the Caribbean and the Third World, but all those invested in moving beyond the world order put into place in 1492. (Littérature 18)
Nevertheless, one cannot help but note a certain amount of critical discomfort with Haitian literature's representation of and infusion with its legacy of revolutionary violence—a discomfort that in fact has a great deal to do, I believe, with “not-Paris.” Another passage from Nesbitt's Voicing Memory is particularly revealing. Nesbitt writes,
[B]y 1804, after years of violent warfare had decimated the island, this revolution overthrew the world order of the previous century to institute the world's first black republic. For all its momentous implications, the Haitian Revolution remained largely quarantined within the confines of a single Caribbean island, the young nation working through its own dialectic of terror and enlightenment as slavery and colonialism lived on elsewhere throughout the nineteenth century. (xii, emphasis mine)
A leading scholar of Haitian history and literature, and unambiguous “sympathizer” as concerns Haiti's contemporary plight, Nesbitt qualifies (p.17) the Haitian Revolution as the bold and isolated precursor to what he refers to as the “second Antillean revolution”—the decolonizing efforts of the post-World War I writers and theorists he examines and who, again, aside from Danticat are “all products of Parisian training in the Sciences humaines” (xiv). These next-wave revolutionaries, Nesbitt asserts,
seized the arms of their oppressors in an uprising that transformed the political and economic face of the planet, bringing an end to European colonialism. The astounding fact of this revolution as it occurred in France's colonies, however, is that it proceeded—with important exceptions—not through the redeployment of absolute terror, violence, and destruction, but via a reconstruction in human understanding and experience. This was a transformation whose weapons were the humanist arms of imagination, communication, and insight: poetry, literature, theater, philosophy, and polemical tracts … The Toussaint Louverture of this cultural revolution was the Martinican poet and statesman Aimé Césaire … Just as the earlier architects of the Haitian Revolution had applied the standards of the French Enlightenment to the actual conditions of slavery and the plantation, Césaire, along with such writers as Frantz Fanon, René Ménil, and Edouard Glissant, transformed the tools they appropriated in Paris in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s … redirecting those sources to critique and undermine colonial violence and to transform the colonized subjects it had produced. (xii–xiii, emphasis mine)
This description uses very different terminology from the language of seclusion and finitude applied to Haiti's revolution. Nesbitt places Haiti's resistance history in a separate space—conceptually inspirational but practically isolated. He evokes Haiti's bloody, visceral seizing of sovereignty in terms that markedly contrast with the civility and universal humanist intellectualism that characterize the writer-theorists of the Antilles.12
Léon-François Hoffmann affirms this contrast even more stringently. He makes the following claim in Le Roman haïtien:
[i]f the colonial era has left few traumatic traces in [Haiti's] collective memory, it is because the prowess of its ancestors has effaced the humiliation of dependency, has avoided the complex of the decolonized (such as it prevails these days in a large part of the Third World and, particularly, in the Caribbean). (27–28)
Bernadette Cailler similarly places Haiti in a category à part, contending that “whatever may have been the avatars, the tragedies, of Haitian History after independence, these are not at all assimilable to the problems faced by Martinican and Guadeloupean society … [T]he unique destiny of Haiti demands, from the outset, that we keep these texts at a certain distance” (51). Cailler argues that a line must be drawn between those nations still “administratively attached to France” (53) and those, (p.18) she implies, that are properly post-colonial (in the diachronic sense of the term). Cailler goes on to suggest that, unlike the writers of Martinique and Guadeloupe, Haiti's writers have somehow failed to initiate or even to envision a discourse that might propose an alternative to European cultural models. She characterizes Haitian literature as dead-ended in its insularity—without a productive presence in the postcolonial world.
Ultimately, such intra-regional border-marking must be seen as problematic, privileging as it does the relationship between Europe (France, Paris) and its (former) Caribbean colonies while dismissing the parallels that persist in the region beyond the specifics of a given island's postcoloniality. Indeed, even if it could be argued that Haiti's revolution somehow silenced the traumatic echoes of its early colonial past, the fact of the island's nearly twenty-year re-colonization by the United States from 1915 to 1934 and veritable recolonizations by the United States and the United Nations in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries provides at least some motivation for considering Haiti's sociopolitical and literary trajectory alongside that of its Caribbean neighbors.13 Yes, the Haitian Revolution represents a point of exceptionality, but the fact of independence should not project Haiti into an entirely different sphere of consideration. On the contrary, assimilationism and bovarysme14 have marked Haiti's literary and socio-cultural history as indelibly as in the Antillean departments of France. Indeed, historically, Haiti's writing elite has, like that of the French Antilles, had to negotiate its tendency to look aspirationally toward literary and cultural models promulgated in France. Where Léon-François Hoffmann has insisted, for example, that “Haiti's ethnic composition and her political, economic and intellectual development are quite different from those of her neighbours” (Essays 8), he also recognizes that “the fetishization and exclusive admiration of the literary production of France marks the Haitian educational system as profoundly as it does that of Martinique (and Guadeloupe)—like the Antilles, Haiti turned to France for cultural and literary models” (13). In Lettres créoles, Chamoiseau and Confiant affirm the essential commonalities that unite the pasts, and thus the presents and futures, of Haiti and Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Guyana. They explain:
Despite its accession to independence in 1804, the history of Haiti, on a literary and linguistic level at least, does not differ fundamentally from that of the Lesser Antilles or Guyana. Paradoxically, political and social situations very different from one another, and causes absolutely specific to one or the other case, produce similar effects. (231)
Toumson, for his part, affirms that “Guadeloupean, Martinican, (p.19) Guyanese, and Haitian literature evolved in accordance with the same laws, were familiar with the same schools and the same conflicts between antagonistic tendencies” (35).
Despite the comparability of Haiti and the Antillean Departments, however, and despite the remarkable prolificness of Haiti's writers, some of Haiti's most important voices have been largely excluded from scholarship of the region. Even those scholars who have noted the disproportionate amount of attention paid to the so-called French Antillean writers remain hesitant to include Haiti in critical considerations of the (at the very least, French postcolonial) Caribbean. Mary Gallagher, for example, having rightly identified a number of problematic realities concerning the hegemony of Martinican literature as regards critical interest in the French-speaking Americas, finds a host of reasons not to include Haiti in her own study. She argues,
The history of Haiti is unique in the Caribbean: it is unimpeachably different in relation not just to French Caribbean history, but to Caribbean history in general. Haiti has been, indeed, and continues to be for every other Caribbean island, although particularly for the French-Caribbean, an over significant other. Two further factors that distinguish the Haitian literary context are the extremely low levels of literacy in Haiti, and the fact that Haitian writers are largely and for obvious political, cultural, and economic reasons, writers in exile. (7)
While Haiti is perhaps unique in many ways, its insular literacy rates are of little relevance given that the primary readership for work from the entire region is based primarily in North America and Europe. Also, although it is not inaccurate to characterize Haitian writers as, overwhelmingly, “writers in exile,” Frankétienne, Fignolé, and Philoctète, as well as Gary Victor, Evelyne Trouillot, and Marie Chauvet are all among the admittedly few but still very significant novelists to have written from within the island space. Due, then, to such singularizing perceptions of Haiti, there are only a handful of its authors who are consistently evoked in broader discussions of francophonie; and it is telling that these are the writers who ascribe to identifiable Franco-European discourses. In effect, the much-discussed author-activists Jacques Roumain, Jacques-Stephen Alexis, and René Depestre have all espoused variants of Marxism,15 embracing what Kemedjio has dubbed a practice of “literary civicism” (Négritude 11) [civisme littéraire], and Depestre—vocal defender of a social realist aesthetic he models on the work of French writer Louis Aragon—also proclaims fidelity to Surrealism. Moreover, all three of the above-named writers spent a significant part of their writing lives in exile, in France.
“If one theme characterizes modern Haitian literature, it is that of exile,” writes Michael Dash (“Haïti” 46). What to make, then, of these three writers who have so categorically refused to leave Haiti, fighting against the all too accurate contention that “to be Haitian is to be in exile” (Munro, Exile 5)? Determined to engage absolutely with the quotidian violence that plagued Haiti during the Duvalier régimes, the Spiralists have spent much of their creative energies figuring out how to survive while writing within and about their country. In Voeu de voyage et intention romanesque, by far the most theoretical offering produced by any of the Spiralists, Fignolé articulates and exemplifies a not-exile (“not-Paris”) ethos. Opaque and meandering rather than explicatory, lyrical and layered rather than straightforward, this long essay-poem communicates by its very form the perspective put forward in its content—and this perspective is grounded in a specific refutation of practices and tendencies that, as I have argued above, characterize much Antillean literature of the last century. Throughout the essay, Fignolé rejects transparency, narratives of progress, formulaic fiction, and adherence to extra-insular traditions, calling instead for “signs, interpretations, suggested visions, intelligent understandings that find their own value far from overly transparent, overly intellectual explanations” (15). He takes issue even with contemporary enthusiasm for the cultural contributions of postcolonial peoples, which he perceives as so much patronizing incomprehension: “Straightaway the rational (the certain knowledge of others) is dazzled by the richness of the irrational. Of what they deem such but which, in fact, is no more than a rational that has not yet been inventoried. Not yet examined” (77).
Fignolé's lack of clarity is strategic, serving ultimately to prevent theorists and literary critics from focusing on certain of the principles he evokes while relegating others to the background. This perspective allows him to extol the particular virtues of the Spiralist perspective, while remaining critical of any tendency toward totalizing literary practices.
But be careful! Be careful, so that the new literature bursting forth in the magnificent explosion of my words does not bring on some painful delivery by limiting itself to a particular schema (a particular ghetto) in which to shut itself up … so that such a literature, once realized, does not close the door to other songs … (104–5)
His and other Spiralist works are thus meant to be an exploration and interrogation of reality rather than the vehicle for any predetermined message. It is worth noting, for example, that of all the most significant (p.21) twentieth-century literary philosophies of the French-speaking Caribbean—Indigenism, Negritude, antillanité, créolité—Spiralism alone privileges an aesthetic perspective over an ethnic origin or sociopolitical agenda in its very name. While this by no means translates into a disinterest in aesthetics on the part of the originators of the abovementioned movements, or socio-political indifference on the part of the Spiralists, the latter's foundational self-distancing from the Caribo- or ethno-centric is nevertheless significant. In effect, where so many of the most celebrated and widely published writers of the postcolonial world hotly debate the theoretical underpinnings of their creative choices, the Spiralists provide no manifesto, no fil d'Ariane to guide the reader-theorist through the labyrinths of their prose. As Fignolé has quite blatantly put it, “We have consistently refused to imprison Spiralism within the frame of a single definition. We leave that to the critics and historians” (Magnier 46). Whether irony, invitation, or both, this attitude presents a very particular challenge to those of us, “critics and historians” by trade, who find ourselves intrigued, fascinated, frustrated by their works. It summons us to embrace the discomfort of engaged but unguided readership—to avoid tethering any of the Spiralists' resolutely Haitian texts to a more comfortable theoretical sub- or paratext.
Maryse Condé, for example, does not put Frankétienne, Fignolé, or Philoctète on her list of self-canonizing francophone Caribbean “rulemakers”—an omission that is likely as much a reflection of the Spiralists' overall exclusion from critical discourse as it is a consequence of their unwillingness to produce any sort of manifesto. According to Condé, it is this refusal to precisely theorize their aesthetic that has kept the Spiralists on the margins. She maintains that the overall absence of critical interest in Spiralism is a direct consequence of this imprecision regarding its founders' ideological constructs, and she attributes Spiralism's “unpopularity” among scholars to the apparent vagueness of its theoretical foundations. The discourse of Spiralism lacks coherence, she insists, leaving the critic bewildered, or without much to say.16 Similarly evoking the theoretical, Charles Arthur and Michael Dash sum up Spiralism's perceived value “in theory” as opposed to “in practice” in their 1999 anthology of Haitian literature, Libète. They maintain that “[w]ithin Haiti the only movement with any literary impact was the illdefined [emphasis mine] doctrine of spiralisme, started by Frankétienne” (292). Arthur and Dash's comments echo, in a sense, Léon-François Hoffmann's ostensibly generous assertion in Histoire littéraire de la francophonie that “[t]he question is not whether Frankétienne has elaborated (p.22) a universally useful system, nor whether this system is coherent or entirely original. What is interesting is that Frankétienne was the first Haitian writer to have sought to create his own aesthetic structure, rather than adopting or adapting one from elsewhere” (215).17 Though they intend to make rather different points, the above francophonists all suggest that Spiralism's absent or confusing theoretical self-fashioning presents a stumbling block that—whether negotiated or forgiven—risks undermining appreciation of its creative contribution.
It is interesting to consider these impressions of the Spiralists and their works in the light of current debates surrounding the past and present value—one might even say the usefulness—of the literature of the Frenchspeaking world with respect to Franco-European culture. The 44 signatories (among which Condé, but not either of the two living Spiralists) of the recently published manifesto(!) Pour une littératuremonde en français contend that non-hexagonal literature has for too long served as the enlivening counterpoint—“a poetic and novelistic effervescence”—to a stale, overly intellectualized French tradition.18 According to the manifesto, modern and postmodern French letters have become increasingly removed from “the world,” resulting in “a literature without any other objective but itself, engaged, as it used to be said, in its own criticism in the very process of its enunciation”—“texts henceforth referring back only to other texts in a game of endless combinations.” The manifesto contends, in other words, that French literature has been stifled by excessive theorization. Ironically, though, the impetus for the drafting of this manifesto was the awarding of five major French literary prizes in 2006 to writers from the French-speaking world.19 “Ironically,” of course, because this series of events—the awards followed by the manifesto—so beautifully illustrates the awkward dynamic by which francophone writers reject the normalizing apparati of French culture and demand recognition by and within its structures.
Again, these are exactly the issues that must be addressed when considering the relative value of theory in the postcolonial context and, more specifically, in assessing the position of the Spiralists in this context. For I am arguing that the absence of systematized theoretical elucidation and self-referentiality in the Spiralists' works has something to do with their veritable absence from regional literary canons. This situation suggests, I believe, a correlation between a refusal of theory and a certain degree of marginalization from within an already marginalized space. It raises the possibility that an unquestioning acceptance—expectation—of theory as paradigm sets problematic boundaries and subtly undercuts the (p.23) regional unity—the “transversality” [transversalité] (Glissant, Discours 230)—so often and explicitly called for by writers and theorists of the postcolonial Americas. Having never produced a substantial body of literature establishing the tenets of the Spiralist aesthetic, Frankétienne, Fignolé, and Philoctète offer very little to counter assertions of insularity, inconsistency, and even irrelevance. I am interested in the response of the “literary institution”20 to this silence and the extent to which it has determined the relative critical fate of the three authors. As Richard Watts maintains, for example, paratextual writings facilitate the circulation of francophone postcolonial texts in a global, Euro-driven (I mean to refer both to the prefix and the currency) framework marked by post-imperial tensions. I am arguing that by not making extensive paratextual theoretical gestures, the Spiralists effectively sustain those tensions and limit the possibility of a recuperation often disguised as appreciation, sympathy, or understanding. By refusing to provide interpretive tools, the Spiralists have in many respects foregone the accumulation of cultural capital and, consequently, the international (Euro-North American) cachet/distinction/reputation enjoyed by their more “invested” contemporaries. Only some of their writings have been published and/or circulated outside of Haiti and so are costly and difficult to procure. Only two of their works have been translated into English, and that just recently.21 Though a Parisian house published both of Fignolé's novels in the late eighties and early nineties, Frankétienne's works were only picked up for reprinting by French publishers in the late nineties, and not one of Philoctète's works was printed outside of Haiti until 2003, at which point Actes Sud (posthumously) published an anthology of his poetry.
It would be naïve, of course, or even disingenuous to romanticize the de facto silencing that has largely prevented the Spiralists from assuming a more prominent place in a postcolonial literary canon. Philoctète in particular has very explicitly expressed frustration with his invisibility as a writer in a country/context of non-readers.22 In discussing a then-recent literary project, Les Cahiers du vendredi, Philoctète states plainly his desire to broaden the reading/consuming audience as essential to his understanding of himself as a writer. “We want our books published,” he insists. “We want to be known by the public at large, instead of being confined to a small group of friends. With Les Cahiers du vendredi, we hope to gain an opening not only on Haiti, but on the world at large” (“Entretien” 623). He continues:
In order for Haitian literature to be really strong, the people must be literate. (p.24) What is a book anyway? It is a product, a commercial item. I write in order to be read, in order to sell to the people around me. But if they can't read, my book is worth nothing. It is a commercial product which is going to stay here, insulted by dust. (626)
In a foreword to Massacre River, the English translation of Le Peuple des terres mêlées, Lyonel Trouillot similarly attributes Philoctète's neglect by the wider world to the unwillingness and/or inability to facilitate his own fame:
Ti René was not an expert seducer bent on insinuating himself into the ranks of the powerful in a quest for fame … He knew nothing about promotional strategies, the wheeling and dealing that foster great careers. And in those days, suffering from a form of racism or condescension, the international press and the university scholars in the West chose to believe that Haiti was populated exclusively by victims and executioners, by paupers and thuggish Tontons-Macoutes. In the eyes of the West, under the reign of Papa Doc, the best of Haiti was to be sought elsewhere. (14)
The frustrations of literal and metaphorical insularity are most certainly at the root of Philoctète's as well as Frankétienne's and Fignolé's underrecognition. Indeed, though they have remained fully committed to the geographical space of their island, all three writers have actively sought out avenues by which they might reach a greater audience. I would nevertheless submit that the relative marginalization of Spiralism has allowed for a remarkable creative unfettered-ness in the works of the three authors. That is, if Frankétienne, Fignolé, and Philoctète have missed out on the sponsor-like partnerships or partner-like relationships that have been cultivated between certain Antillean writers and their Western critics, they have also avoided any hints of the formulaic fiction that often results from the “academicization” of a postcolonial aesthetic. That is, the Spiralists have managed to avoid the “prescriptive models” (Kemedjio, Négritude 11) that seem in many ways to determine the literary output of some of the region's more celebrated, theory-crafting writers.23 The three authors resist such “helpful” literary conventions as, say, clear narrative beginnings, distinguishable characters, temporal consistency, punctuation, etc.—rendering literal Watts's rhetorical question: “[H]ow would one approach or even learn of the existence of a book that has no title, no cover, and no indication of who should read it and how?”(16). Indeed. The tone of Watts' question characterizes such a literary stance as unthinkably impractical, implicitly belying his later assertion that “‘opacity’ has become part of the francophone text's appeal” and that “the paratext has abandoned its goal of providing ostensibly transparent access to the text” (20). In reality, only a limited (p.25) opacity has been valorized in francophone Caribbean letters—an opacity that more often than not overtly proclaims itself as a political position and undertakes to justify and deconstruct itself—telling diegetically rather than showing mimetically what it is resisting and what it is refusing to do. Those texts anchored in true and profound obscurity—creative writings unbounded by theory and by much of the paratextually and pragmatically requisite—are too often silenced.
Lahens devotes a chapter of her long essay, L'Exil: Entre l'ancrage et la fuite l'écrivain haïtien to Fignolé's Voeu de voyage, which she dubs a “so unjustly unrecognized little book” (25). Lahens, like the Spiralist author, maintains that the phenomenon of exile is one of the primary constitutive elements of the Haitian literary and psycho-social experience: “A deportee from the outset, then rendered incapable despite himself of ‘belonging,’ the Haitian writer is often tempted to end, by means of the voyage, the double and painful exile he experiences within his native land” (22). Indeed, the voyage has profoundly determined the evolution of Haitian letters throughout the twentieth century, and the Haitian writer's relationship to elsewhere has been a concern of all three Spiralists. Theirs is a refusal avant la lettre of the alienated/-ing psychological phenomenon implicit in Glissant's concept of the Return (Retour). In effect, exile for Frankétienne—the condition of “not-Paris” excentricity, if you will—has little to do with a physical situation or geographical position. Rather, he understands exile as a state of mind and being in which the individual/artist—as a result of intimidation, ambition, assimilation, etc.—is less than true to his or her personal ethic and aesthetic.24 More stridently opposed to the phenomenon of exile, Fignolé equates le voyage with desertion, alienation, and self-loathing: “I call this flight illusory,” he announces, “Here constantly contests over there. Especially when over there is disdain, pitying to boot, for here … The fascination for over there is accentuated by the conceded or imposed presence of over there smack in the middle of here” (50–51). Deliberately provocative—“I hear, from here, the enraged cries of those who … will accuse me of limiting my horizons. So be it” (78–79)—Fignolé in no way backs down from his belief in the value of the voyage refused.
Rather than seek a physical exile that might somehow attenuate their state of isolation within the boundaries of their country, Frankétienne, Fignolé, and Philoctète have always written within and out of the tension between the insular and the global. For them, the fact of physical isolation in Haiti has by no means diminished their capacity to dialogue productively with elsewhere. They belie what Kaussen has pointed to as (p.26) the problematic implication in criticism by Gallagher, Dash, and Bongie that only the works of exiled writers succeed in narrating properly the “postmodern and postcolonial,” the “hybrid and shifting identities” of the contemporary Caribbean. The writings of Frankétienne, Fignolé, and Philoctète contest the notion that “the movement of postmodernity and the experience of postcolonial exile have in fact liberated contemporary Haitian writers from the dark past of Haiti's totalizing militancy, revolutionary nationalism, and isolating modernism” (17). The Spiralists straddle the supposed divide between militant Haitian modernism and cosmopolitan Creole postmodernism, despite their physical positioning within the strikingly closed space of the Haitian Republic. As Frankétienne has specifically argued, their rootedness in Haiti places them at the crux of issues facing the whole of modern society, inasmuch as “Haiti is a point of reference for the world, a magnified image of global unease” (Marty 191). As Frankétienne asserts elsewhere:
I effectively lived a confinement that was the source of existential anguish, an anguish that exploded into my writing. It was during the time that I couldn't leave Haiti that I accomplished imaginary voyages not only in writing and reading but also in my dreams … I experienced all possible voyages because confinement was systematic in Haiti. I had this gluttonous desire to possess everything that existed on the planet, to interiorize it, to devour it. (Chemla and Pujol 116)
The sentiments Frankétienne expresses here regarding embodiment of the universal via immersion in the particular indisputably connects with ideas emanating from other areas of the French-speaking Caribbean. I am thinking specifically of Dash's assertion that, in the face of such isolating phenomena as Antillean departmentalization and Duvalierism, “open insularity, the shifting ground between lived opacity and fated relationality … characterizes francophone Caribbean writing” (“Postcolonial” 235).25 Frankétienne's comments echo Glissant's declaration that “here, in the island, the encirclement that risked blocking the imagination on the contrary inflames and rushes up on it, chargers from the sea … Closed in, surrounded, burning to imagine the whole in his image, [man] must open up, see something else, the other” (22). This dialectic of the individual and the universal, of the centripetal and the centrifugal, of the closed and the open, is precisely encapsulated in the form of the spiral—a form that allows such apparent contradictions to remain intact, functionally unresolved, largely untheorized. It underlies the Spiralists' confidence that insularity does not limit the reach of their imagination. Spiralism's “incoherence” is no accident, then. Rather, it reflects an unwillingness to be determined by the temptations or the exigencies of a (p.27) codified theoretical position. Having lived their confinement in the geographical space of Duvalier's Haiti as an opportunity for openness on a creative level, the Spiralists allow the interaction between physical internment and creative freedom to permeate all of their fiction and to ground a non-theory-based conception of themselves as postcolonial artists.
(1) Discours 427.
(2) As Valerie Kaussen rightly notes, “Guadeloupean and Martinican writers have access to a French publishing industry to which Haitian and even French Canadian publishing cannot compare in terms of global distribution and promotion” (20).
(3) Cf. Lorde's essay “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House,” in Sister Outsider.
(4) Guyana is another regional French Department and has a political status vis-à-vis France that is identical to that of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
(5) Indeed, we must recognize this vocalness as, in large part, a function of the desire to self-define—to avoid the fate that generally awaits those who (allow themselves to) remain the object of discourse for Europeans. A related example: according to Simon Njami, African creativity has long remained silent in terms of self-commentary. It is because of this silence, this “refusal to lay itself bare,” that the West took up the task of interpreting, or rather misinterpreting Africa's art. Njami writes: “This millennial misunderstanding came to a climax with the attempt to decipher the world of artistic creation through a single perspective: the history of (Western) art. Due to its silence, African creativity was sent into an obscure, ill-defined limbo. From the start of colonization—ever since the African Middle Ages in fact—pure, authentic, identifiable indigenous creativity ceased to exist … Faced with the creators' constant silence, the productions were catalogued and labeled according to this or that person's interpretations, and stored away in European ethnological museums” (16).
(6) “Édouard Glissant has often argued that there may be individual Martinican writers but there is no Martinican literature and no literary audience” (Dash, “Introduction” 310). In a 1984 interview, Glissant asserts, “‘I don't believe that West Indian literature exists yet since literature supposes an action and a reaction between a public and an audience. I repeat that we West Indian writers, we are writing forewords to tomorrow's literature’” (Degras and Magnier 14).
(7) For a thorough and very fair examination of Le Brun's position as expressed in Pour Aimé Césaire and Statue cou-coupé see Chris Bongie, Islands and Exiles 342–47.
(8) Maeve McCusker posits a similar argument in her assessment of the créolité movement: “This circulation via the metropolis undercuts the explicitly anti-hegemonic rhetoric of the créolité movement, which is recuperated, as a commodity, by the centre against which it positions itself—a mainstreaming of the margins which is of course symptomatic of the postcolonial artist more generally” (118).
(9) Nesbitt's very astute assessment of Césaire's “insider” status bears quoting at greater length: “Césaire … became both a guiding voice of French Caribbean culture and an active, innovative, and ideologically autonomous presence on the Parisian intellectual scene … [H]e forged for himself a role structurally homologous to that of the Sartrean total intellectual in which Césaire accumulated intellectual and political (p.28) capital by positioning himself as the archetypal black poet-statesman. His proximity to and familiarity with the existentialist movement and the functioning of that intellectual milieu (former normalien, consecration by Breton, growing fame in Francophone literary circles, Parisian presence as both an intellectual published in Les Temps modernes and Présence africaine and a deputy) allowed him successfully to fulfill this role” (Voicing Memory, 121).
(10) Indeed, Dash is among the few scholars who make a point to look at literary Haiti as a persistently integral and dialogic entity within the American region. The majority of critical interventions tend to focus on the Revolution and its aftermath—Sibylle Fischer's Modernity Disavowed and Nick Nesbitt's Universal Emancipation, two exceptional in-depth analyses of Haiti's revolution and its resonance in a globally modern context, as well as the special issues of Yale French Studies, The Haiti Issue: 1804 and 19th Century French Studies, and of Research in African Literatures, Haiti, 1804–2004: Literature Culture and Art, are examples of this phenomenon—despite the fact that Haiti's writers themselves have very rarely made the Revolution the subject of their fiction.
(11) Arguably a less dramatic act, worthy of noting here is Edmond Laforest's symbolically resonant suicide in 1915. The well-known Haitian poet is said to have serenely tied an Encyclopédie Larousse around his neck before jumping off a bridge into a river and drowning to death. This act might be read as a particularly clear affirmation of “not-Paris.”
(12) It might be argued that Frantz Fanon bridges somewhat the discursive gap that distinguishes France's “enlightened” and “civilized” Caribbean territories from the perenially violent Haitian state—the implicit borders “that separate the developed and the undeveloped, the ‘civilized’ and ‘savage’” (Kaussen 206). I refer to the affinities between Fanon's valorization of revolutionary violence and the ethical perspective of the Spiralists in Part III of this study.
(13) Kaussen makes this point beautifully, maintaining that “the significance of Haiti's challenge to the modern colonial order continues to be evident two centuries after 1804. The cordon sanitaire around Haiti is still in place, and we need only to look at the dream-work of literature and film about vodou and zombies, at racist discourses, rumors of AIDS, and the world perception of Haiti as the America's ‘little Africa,’ to recognize the challenge that Haiti continues to present to the contemporary world order and to the excesses of global capitalism (globalization)” (6).
(14) This is a term first used by Haitian ethnologist Jean Price-Mars to describe and condemn the Haitian elite's alienated aspiration to French cultural standards and values. Jacques Corzani comments on Haiti's post-revolutionary assimilative tendencies as well in his 1978 La Littérature des Antilles-Guyane françaises: “Haiti, despite its independence, languished in a rather sterile contemplation of France and its culture. Far from favoring any sort of rupture, the economic and social difficulties of the young State encouraged the cultivated bourgeoisie to remain intoxicated by French culture throughout the nineteenth century” (cited by Munro in “Can't Stand Up” 4–5).
(15) Roumain founded the Haitian Communist Party (PCH), of which Alexis was a member, in 1934; Depestre was a student revolutionary in Haiti, involved in the overthrow of Elie Lescot's government in 1946, an anti-colonial militant in Paris, and a communist intellectual in Guevara's Cuba. Valerie Kaussen provides very helpful reflections on the appeal of Third International Communism for these post-American Occupation Haitian writers in Chapter 3 of Migrant Revolutions.
(16) Comments extracted from personal interviews with Maryse Condé.
(17) It bears noting that neither Arthur and Dash nor Hoffmann make mention of Fignolé and Philoctète.
(18) Francophone scholar Sandy Petrey writes, for example: “Although diagnosticians have often seen French studies as weak and growing weaker, therefore, at least one component of the field has robust vital signs bright with promise. Francophone inquiry is on the rise, in terms of student as well as faculty interest, and it would be asinine for those devoted to other components of our profession not to welcome it with enthusiastic support. The broad array included under the Francophone rubric has infused new life into student interest and new paradigms into scholarly profiles. Its progress has been invigorating for the field as a whole” (134).
(19) The Prix Goncourt and Prix du roman de l'Académie Française were awarded to American author Jonathan Little; the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens was awarded to Camerounian writer Léonaora Miano; Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou won the Prix Renaudot; and the Prix Femina went to Canadian Nancy Huston.
(20) Here I reference Richard Watts, who opens his study with the following citation from Yanick Lahens' L'Exil: Entre l'ancrage et la fuite l'écrivain haïtien: “For we are aware that more and more it is the literary institution (teaching, research, criticism, publishing) that determines creation and not the other way around” (62).
(21) Frankétienne's Creole theater piece Pèlin-Tèt (The Noose) was translated in 1997, though it has yet to be published in its entirety, and Philoctète's Le Peuple des terre mêlées was published as Massacre River in 2005.
(22) Philippe Bernard comments on this frustrating reality in the introduction to his study of twentieth-century Haitian literature: “The country counts eight million inhabitants and when the ‘administrative services’ of the country announce proudly that ten percent of the population is Francophone, one must raise an eyebrow. The official numbers—three or four percent—seem much closer to reality, now in 2002. Let us add that publishers don't exist as such in Haiti” (Rêve 10). Léon-François Hoffmann provides a helpful analysis—older by two decades—of the latter phenomenon: “The mechanisms of fabrication and circuits of distribution for the book in Haiti still remain rudimentary. There exist barely any publishing houses in the modern sense of the term. The novelist is forced to rely on a printer who more often than not only has access to the most primitive equipment. Every book is published at the expense of the author, with a hundred or so copies printed on paper of mediocre quality. Its distribution depends on the not always particularly impressive initiative of the bookstores, and on the personal efforts of the author … Outside the country, there are but a scant few specialized shops in France, Canada, and the United States that agree to stock Haitian works” (Roman haïtien 43–44).
(23) An example of this might be the veritable obsession in postcolonial literature with providing corrected versions of regional history, noted by Graham Huggan among others. The latter writes in “Prizing ‘Otherness’”: “[T]here is still a residual conservatism playing about the Booker's edges: a conservatism brought out in approaches to the prizewinning novels' themes. One such theme, which some critics have regarded as a gauge of the Booker's ‘postcoloniality,’ is revisionist history. More than half of the prizewinning novels to date investigate aspects of—primarily colonial—history, or present a ‘counter-memory’ [cf. Foucault, Language, Countermemory, Practice 23] to the official historical record” (418–19). While, as I suggest in Part III of this study, the Spiralists are themselves concerned with Haitian history, their narratives cannot be said to engage in “revising” or “countering” other narratives of the past.
(24) Indeed, Frankétienne is decidedly less condemning then Fignolé as regards Haitian writers who have chosen or been forced into exile, only ever insisting on the importance of remaining in Haiti to his own development as an artist: “I do not deny the effects of exile on the life and destiny of any individual, especially when he is an artist or a writer … But I do not consider exile as a valid criterion for appreciating (p.30) and judging aesthetic quality. To live in exile does not mean detachment from the native land; similarly, the fact of staying in the country must not be viewed as the unquestionable proof of an attachment to the homeland and a will to settle there forever. The problem is far more complex” (“Interview” 390).
(25) In this, Dash very implicitly affirms the underlying political circumstances that link fundamentally the three Caribbean islands marked by French colonization: “Such a perspective represents, from the 1950s on, an entirely new path for writing for Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Haiti. Indeed, at a time when these places were increasingly isolated from the world around them, because of Departmentalization and Duvalierism, their literature became more enmeshed in the poetics of hemispheric errancy” (“Caraïbe” 103).