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American CreolesThe Francophone Caribbean and the American South$

Martin Munro and Celia Britton

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9781846317538

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846317200

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Édouard Glissant and the Test of Faulkner's Modernism

Édouard Glissant and the Test of Faulkner's Modernism

(p.197) Édouard Glissant and the Test of Faulkner's Modernism
American Creoles

Hugues Azéradt

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the issue of William Faulkner's modernism. It demonstrates how Édouard Glissant pursues Faulkner's modernist project and how he approaches Faulkner from an aesthetic point of view. The chapter also compares Glissant's concept of opacity with Theodor Adorno's theorization of ‘modernist negativity’.

Keywords:   William Faulkner, modernism, Édouard, modernist project, opacity, Theodor Adorno, modernist negativity

Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope.

Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings,

Vol. 1, 1913–1926 (1996), pp. 335–56

Et qu'on devrait, qu'on pourrait, à nouveau mais totalement, commencer – d'une autre sorte d'humanité

Édouard Glissant, Faulkner, Mississippi (1996), p. 299

[And that we should, we could, begin again – completely, totally – a new type of humanity (Glissant, 2000: 218)]2

Les paysages faulknériens s'altèrent d'une mauve fragrance, d'une puissance de mélancolie qui font que vous avez envie […] d'en revenir à peindre votre propre paysage, proche ou lointain.

Édouard Glissant, Faulkner, Mississippi (1996), p. 148

(p.198) [Faulkner's landscapes are suffused with a fragrance of mauve, with a power of melancholy that makes you feel like painting your own countryside, whether near or far (Glissant, 2000: 106)]

In Faulkner, Mississippi, Glissant provides us with an innovative reading of an author whose work we thought we already knew almost inside out. Indeed, in 1996, compared with other great modernists such as Joyce, Woolf, Proust, Kafka and Musil, Faulkner was beginning to seem outdated, ‘unsaleable’ and even undesirable within the field of literary criticism. Faulkner's heyday was under New Criticism and at the time of the White House's anti-communist policies of the 1950s and 1960s (Schwartz, 1988), and only a small number of brilliant hardliners such as Philip Weinstein, Barbara Ladd, John Mathews, Richard Godden, André Bleikasten and Claude Romano, along with a few others, have continued to explore his work and open it up to the new critical trends of the 1990s (see in particular Mathews, 2004; Ladd, 2003; 2007; Loichot, 2003; Romano, 2005; Bleikasten, 2007; Weinstein, 1996; 2006; Chrétien, 2009). Despite these endeavours, Faulkner has not survived the theoretical turns of these last decades well. It would be too easy to explain this by pointing to the latent and atavistic racism of this ‘white Southerner’, along with the complexity and apparent decline of his style (the difficulty of the books which preceded Go Down Moses (1942) was considered to be an indisputable mark of quality by pro-modernist formalists, whereas the ratiocinations of his final novels betrayed, in their view, a delirious and paternalistic humanism).

This, then, was the apparent state of affairs when Glissant's book stirred up the Parisian critical world in 1996, and very shortly afterwards did the same in Faulkner studies, partly as a result of the English translation. After Malraux, Camus, Sartre and almost all the literary figures of the post-war period, from Marguerite Duras to Claude Simon, here was another writer-thinker in the French language who had come to tell the world that Faulkner is an author who really cannot be ignored, albeit, this time, for an unexpected reason: Faulkner, Glissant tells us, is a writer, indeed almost the only writer, who anticipated the tout-monde: ‘oui, Faulker est un moment de la pensée-monde’ (Glissant, 1996: 143) [Yes, Faulkner is a moment, a beat in the world-thought (Glissant, 2000: 102)]. A beat which demands that we move beyond it, as Glissant's novels Tout-monde (1993) and Sartorius (1999) imply through their themes, their geographical fragmentation and the words of the ‘déparleur-poète-narrateur’ [lunatic-poet-narrator] of Tout-monde, if we can believe him:3

(p.199) Ce romancier, dont on pouvait dire qu'il partait aussi en poésie, essayait de tracer, de révéler les personnes par le paysage (nous ne croyons plus avec lui au personnage de roman qui vous en impose, ni aux astuces de l'auteur: les descriptions rusées qui tachent de présenter un quidam sans en brosser vraiment le portrait, du genre ‘non pas seulement, mais’ plutôt que ‘assuré pas peut-être’, les dialogues sous-entendus qui dévoilent peu à peu et laissent tant à deviner […]).4 (Glissant, 1993: 521)

Whereas Le Discours antillais (1981a) still followed the patterns of traditional literary discourse, setting tale and myth in opposition, Faulkner, Mississippi plunges into Faulkner's work, setting out to explore its physiognomy by analysing it as a whole. Most important, though, as will be argued here, it also establishes an extreme relationship intended to test out Glissant's own work and concept of literature against those of a writer who moved him deeply, before putting these to the test in their turn. This relationship should allow us a clearer vision of Glissant's aesthetic project, a project which strategically pursues Faulkner's modernism and in doing so diverts it and redeems it. (p.200) Tracing the circular pattern which is part of his signature, Glissant's critical reading of Faulkner cannot be separated from the way in which he, in his turn, invites us to read his own work.

It is by allowing the South, and the mythical county of Yoknapatawahpa, to establish itself in its true geographical location, the creolizing archipelago which stretches from South America to the shores of Louisiana, that Glissant contrives to take a writer's work which had become mired in an increasingly individualizing and atavistic space and whose flagging universalism was denigrated by critics, and free it from its ghetto. Barbara Ladd, in the footsteps of J. Michael Dash, has given a clear account of this geographical, ideological and aesthetic repositioning which transforms Faulkner into a writer of ‘the other America’ (Dash 1998).5 She picks up on a feature of Faulkner's work remarked on by Glissant as early as L'Intention poétique (Glissant, 1969) and later in Le Discours antillais (1981a), namely his view of history as non-linear and circular, as passion and as trace, overturning the spatio-temporal logic which governs Western history. She accordingly suggests that

our habit of seeing the presence of History in Faulkner's texts as an irresistible force and Faulkner himself chiefly as a Euro-American writer in the midst of exploring the South's obsolescence has blinded us to his Créolité, to his own roots in a Creole context, to his Creole suspicion of and resistance to the Historical narrative. (Ladd, 2004: 33–35)

Nevertheless, Glissant is careful not to clarify Faulkner's opacity, absorbing it into his approach and reflecting on his own work which appears to offer him an analogous historical aporia that nevertheless differs in essence from that of Faulkner: the abyss of the origins of the South, produced by an original lack, a linearity ruptured by defeat and a false legitimacy based on slavery, is in fact one of the concomitant causes of that other historical abyss, of the ‘non-histoire’ [non-history] (Glissant, 1981a: 130–31) that marks the islands of the Caribbean. But there is a mutual interaction between these two abysses for Glissant, who probes the historical abyss at the heart of the South and produces his own paradox from it: the universe of the South shares a crisis of filiation, a parental and historical trauma, with the world of the Caribbean islands. Absalom, Absalom! (Faulkner, 1936) in particular is a symptom of this historical trauma, being the book of the impossible ‘désiré historique’ [desire for history] (Glissant, 1981a: 260). Glissant, adopting the de-essentializing approach to be found in all his thought and work, views Absalom! as the great (p.201) book of questions, whose techniques of modernist writing are in fact part of an essay in delayed and tragic revelation – ‘un enroulement d'un vertige […] autour d'un lieu qu'il lui faut signifier’ (Glissant, 1996: 20) [a whirling vertigo […] centered in a place to which he felt a need to give meaning (2000: 8)] – which calls back into question the foundations not only of the false epic of Southern literature but also of all atavistic cultures: legitimacy and legitimization are simply misreadings offered in response to the desires of nations to define themselves by excluding others. Faulkner provides no answer, but he asks the right question. Absalom! does not reduce the abyss and the Other to a transparent vision: it brings out a basic antagonism and confirms the death of the traditional epic (Glissant, 2008: 75, 89). Glissant replaces the false epic with the possibility of a new poetics, a new form of epic, open to and founded on his concept of Relation.6

Like Proust in Contre Sainte-Beuve and the pastiches of the masters which are strategically worked into the Recherche, Glissant transforms his work of criticism into a vertiginous mirror of his own work: he modifies our approach to Faulkner by taking us right back towards the origins of the most inextricable and inexpressible aspects of Yoknapatawpha, but he also sets us on the path towards a critical approach to his own work. We should read his Faulkner, Mississippi as a mirror structure in which the work of each author would be tested out by that of the other, that is, put into Relation. What is effectively a sort of literary manifesto-criticism also contains its own antidote: as Glissant and Faulkner's voices intertwine almost to the point of confusion, markers of distance and warnings emerge here and there, sometimes through the distancing technique of self-criticism (avoiding the creation of ‘Faux Faulkner’ (Glissant, 1996: 44) or the inane imitation of techniques which are all the more alluring for being inseparable from their (p.202) intent, for example the use of modals, of ‘non seulement, mais’ ([not only, but], etc.), sometimes through the intrusion of voices from his other books, enjoining him not to project himself onto the Other; in particular the voice of Mycéa, who repeatedly intervenes in the midst of his reflections:

Elle me déclare tout bonnement, au moment d'un tel raisonnement que j'ai comme déparlé à voix haute, que oh! non elle ne veut pas paraître dans ce livre que je fais là […] Je lui dis qu'un pronom a de la force quand on ne sait pas qui se cache derrière. Que d'autres supputeront qu'‘elle’ c'est Mycéa ‘celle dont le poète est enchanté’. Que d'autres calculeront, si ça les intéresse, une identité imaginaire, peut-être une synthèse des quelques éléments dont ils disposeront. Elle me dit de ne pas indéfinir comme ça, sans raison, et de ne pas faire mon Faulkner avec ce pronom, qui après tout est le sien.7 (Glissant, 1996: 243)

This internal echo is part of a Glissantian aesthetic which constantly plays games with itself and, in the process of theorizing, is careful to reject its own identity, to deny itself transparency: Mycéa's witticism about the ‘misappropriation’ and the ‘reasoning’ of the critic-narrator is a direct reference to the temptation to conceptualize and ‘reason’ which plagues Glissant's fictional and often antithetical twin, the great calculator, Mathieu Béluse, who can be compared on occasion to Quentin Compson in Absalom! or even to Joyce's Stephen Dedalus or Proust's ‘Marcel’. It is Mathieu who reluctantly falls under the spell of reason and challenges Papa Longoué in Le Quatrième Siècle, ‘ne sachant pas encore que Mathieu l'avait vaincu, puisque le jeune homme le forçait à suivre le chemin le plus logique, et que voici qu'il raisonnait en que, en donc, en après et avant’ (Glissant, 1964: 47) [Not yet knowing that Mathieu had won because the young man was forcing him to follow the ‘most logical’ path, and here he was arguing that and therefore and after and before’ (Glissant, 2001: 40)].

Faulkner, Mississippi both tests out and embodies the poetics of Relation, which remains the defining mode of Glissant's practice: it is an exercise in self-experimentation in which he reveals to us the essential characteristic (p.203) of his work which he has long described as his poetics (in five books over forty years), which he has more lately called his aesthetics in Une nouvelle région du monde (Glissant, 2006) and which, most recently, he has described as ‘poésie en étendue’ [poetry across space] in the defining subtitle of Philosophie de la relation (Glissant, 2009).8 Glissant exercises his right to preserve his opacity, just as he makes no attempt to shed light on that of Faulkner, instead testing out his poetics of Relation as a new form of criticism and thought. Just as he redefines the concept of literary tradition, as he redefined the relationships between literature and history, between myth and folktale, between language and language-use, between atavistic and composite cultures – on each occasion producing a diversion (rather than an apparent inversion) of terms – he here redefines the way in which we speak of and theorize literary works, including his own.9 He completely overturns the concept of anxiety of influence since, in his reformulation, influence is merely an incomplete early hypothesis, a false understanding of a much more potentially productive phenomenon, that of the poetics of Relation: the concept of influence is a stunted, linear and hierarchizing way of viewing a literary history which turns out to be far more complex than (p.204) it might at first appear.10 Glissant does not reject the principle of influence, he turns it into a principle of Relation (going so far as to speak of ‘contamination’). In this sense, influence would be more a matter of re(-)cognition, of outcrops on the textual landscape, of ephemeral points of contact.

Faulkner, Mississippi, and indeed Glissant's entire critical output, thus exemplifies postcolonial criticism, all the more so in that it radically subverts the literary tradition which is its object. His critical essays, which cannot be viewed separately from his novels and poems, inflect the concept of literary tradition (overturning well-established generic categories such as the essay, novel, drama, poetry and so on, in the process), decentring it, increasing its breadth and rejecting those works which Glissant knows to be forever closed to the reader.11 In Soleil de la conscience, Glissant already asserted: ‘Si l'oeuvre est “bonne”, on y respire, on y profite; si l'œuvre est “mauvaise”, tout mouvement y est pour le lecteur impossible’ [If the work is ‘good’, there is room for us to breathe, we can benefit from it; if it is ‘bad’, there is no possible room for movement by the reader] (Glissant, 1997: 40). He now takes up this idea once again in Faulkner, Mississippi: ‘l'ouverture innombrable de l'œuvre [faulknérienne] a fait que chacun a pu, sans se trahir ni s'abolir dans ce qui n'était pas un modèle, emprunter quelque trace qui lui convenait, parmi celles qui se trouvaient là proposées’ (Glissant, 1996: 344) [The unbounded openness of the work is such that anyone can find a suitable path among those Faulkner proposes without betraying or losing oneself’ (Glissant, 2000: 254)].

What is more, in this book Glissant combines his aesthetic preoccupations with both the modernist and postcolonial principles which had previously often been constructed in opposition to each other, initiating a renewed (p.205) dynamics of Relation between them.12 As a consequence, it is tempting to link Glissant's concept of opacity to modernist negativity, perceived by Adorno as the necessary and only guarantee of modernism's truth-content, where the autonomy of the modernist work of art represents neither a rejection of historical and political conflicts nor a formalism detached from human experience but a mode of realism based on the loss of experience; it is the degree of autonomy in the modernist work that allows it to exercise its critical power fully and, out of the depths of its negativity, to restore a form of hope to the world. Leaving aside Adorno's euro-centrism (which, in this revolutionary thinker, is almost too obvious to be convincing), theoretical links can be established between his principle of non-identity (which supports his negative dialectic, and rejects the homogenization imposed by the universalist principle of identity and the tyranny of eighteenth-century rationalism) and the Glissantian theory of non-history, of the trace, of the abyss, of perpetually deferred revelation, and of non-language (‘notlanguage’ in Absalom!). Glissant is at heart the great Negating writer, the writer of positive negativity (how else should we interpret poétique forcée [forced poetics], le déparler [ravings] and l'opacité [opacity]?), a positive negativity which emerges from the night, from traces, and, tragically, never regains its wholeness, even though he never abandons the waking dream of being made whole.13 Glissant's texts which deal with aesthetics, knowledge and poetics, while they differ from those of Adorno in certain respects, share with them a conviction that domination cannot be vanquished through a form of art which is too directly politically engaged. This was also the question addressed by his first novel, La Lézarde 1958, where political action and art were set in a parallel and sometimes conflicting relationship. For Glissant, the fight against forms of domination cannot be accomplished without running the risk of mediating those same (p.206) forms, bringing about a crystallization of History. Negation provides the guarantee that the work of art does not unwittingly reproduce the very forms of domination it wishes to fight against. It is only in its power to negate ‘what is’ that the possibility of a ‘concrete Utopia’ can survive, pointing to a latent ‘not yet’ (Bloch) even in a present that is experienced as obscure and traumatized.14 For, however vertiginous the paradoxes of Adorno's aesthetics may be, he shares with Glissant the concern for struggle and truth which can still be associated with modernism: ‘Surely it would be better for art to vanish altogether than to forget suffering, which is art's expression and which gives substance to its form’ (Adorno, 2004: 338). The validity of Glissant's poetics and aesthetics is drawn from the original abyss, from the negativity on which his entire work is founded and which fuels his belief in the capacity of art to affect the course of our imaginings and therefore our practices to the extent that, whereas in Adorno the paradoxes of art cannot be resolved except in a world free of antagonisms, in Glissant paradox is replaced by the inextricable while antagonisms give way to Relation. Utopia in Adorno can only be negative and unrealizable, even if it is always desirable and necessary as the unattainable goal of humanity, science and art, because antagonisms cannot be resolved in the world as it is, endlessly reflected in the contradictions of modern art, whereas Glissant's conception of Utopia is closer to Bloch's (and that of Marcuse after him), remaining even in its very lack a Principle of Hope (Bloch, 1995), a concrete hope. This principle of hope, which is also seen as a prism of lucidity and a refusal of what is (namely, in the first instance, the condition of the colonized), remains a benchmark for his aesthetics and his work: ‘L'utopie n'est pas le rêve. Elle est ce qui nous manque dans le monde’ [Utopia is not a dream. It is what we lack in the world] (Glissant, 2005: 16). Utopia is that reservoir of innocence (p.207) and opposition to ideology (Ricoeur, 1997) that gives strength to the poetic and political struggle: ‘rudesse innocente de l'utopie’; ‘l'utopie est notre seul Acte: notre seul Art’ [the innocent ruggedness of Utopia; Utopia is our only Act, our only Art] (Glissant, 2005: 19, 27).

In Faulkner's version of modernism Glissant sees clearly that revolutionary techniques of writing are always motivated by a presupposition in the real world and are never external forms superimposed on supposedly stable historical material (such material does not exist). For Glissant, ‘la technique moderniste est consubstantielle à la matière, au sujet traité’ [modernist technique is consubstantial with its material, with its subject matter] (Magny, 1948: 48), and it provides the means to return to the unspoken of historical impossibility, that is to say, everything that would otherwise be submerged in the ‘délire verbal’ [verbal delirium] or ‘déparler’ [raving] that plagues the community of Martinique but which can, in turn, itself become a source of autonomous and authentic creation (Chancé, 2002). According to him, these modernist procedures ‘ne mènent pas aux révélés absolus d'une Genèse, ce sont les détours infinis par quoi une digénèse trame ses traces et entre dans le conjectural du monde’ (Glissant, 1996: 284) [tell us nothing absolute about how Genesis takes place. They are the endless detours by which a digenesis weaves its traces and Faulkner enters into the realm of the worldly conjectural (Glissant, 2000: 207)].

Faulkner's modernist writing techniques are listed exhaustively by Glissant. First, there are the three key techniques of accumulation, repetition and the circularity generated by the first two. Then there are the stylistic markers, the ‘not only, but's, the ‘not at all, but's and ‘perhaps's, which qualify what Glissant describes as ‘les touchers de conscience’ (Glissant, 1996: 283) [strokes of consciousness (Glissant, 2000: 206)]. To these we must add the other techniques briefly mentioned by Glissant: preterition; the orality inherent to storytelling; the description of the effect before the cause; attention to typographical form and page layout; the points in the text where the style becomes that of a prose poem, where the text appears in a block with almost no punctuation.15 Glissant's accurate and perspicacious description of Faulkner's techniques is mirrored in his own works, for example in the extreme density of La Case du commandeur (Glissant, 1981b), the constant shifts in rhythm and style in Malemort (Glissant, 1975) (p.208) and Mahagony (Glissant, 1987), the blocks of prose separated by short indents in Ormerod (Glissant, 2003), his use of italics in Le Quatrième Siècle (Glissant, 1964) and, invariably, in temporal arabesques, where chronology advances in spirals, not straight lines. These stylistic patterns in Glissant echo certain stylistic characteristics of Absalom! (Faulkner, 1936), Go Down Moses (Faulkner, 1942) and Intruder in the Dust (Faulkner, 1948), but never in a passive process of assimilation: on the contrary, fresh life is breathed into these occasional surface similarities whose role in the narrative is sometimes quite different from that in Faulkner's work – in this respect such passages should be described as pastiche (‘in the manner of’, borrowings of motifs and characteristics) or even parody (a more distanced reconfiguration of motifs).16 It is, rather, with respect to breathing and rhythm and to heuristic content (form being an integral part of the process of revelation and concealment which characterizes Glissant's poetics) that these similarities are worth pursuing further.

Faulkner and Glissant share an intuition that the poetic ‘enfante des bouleversements qui nous changent’ [gives birth to upheavals which transform us] (Glissant, 2005: 108). Poetry is what allows us to follow the trail back, to work our way through a gradual series of revelations: ‘La poésie révèle dans l'apparence du réel, ce qui s'est enfoui, ce qui a disparu, ce qui s'est tari’ [Poetry reveals in the semblance of the real, things that are hidden, that have disappeared, that have dried up] (Glissant, 2009: 102). And while poetry is – as for Césaire – a synonym for knowledge in Glissant's writing, this knowledge is never taken for granted; it is not founded on a fact to be appropriated, but on a dispossession, on non-knowledge, which he also calls ‘un insu’ (Glissant, 1996: 191) [an unknown (Glissant, 2000: 139)]. This unknown, this knowledge of non-knowledge, is, moreover, one of the core features of modernism. In Benjamin's rereading of Baudelaire we encounter the view that knowledge can only be produced through the destruction of experience, which modernity frames as ineffective and illusory.17 This (p.209) destruction gives narrative the power to found a new poetics ‘non pas de la narration, mais du rapport du narré à l'indicible qui le porte’ (Glissant, 1996: 192) [that is not narrative but creates a relationship between what is narrated and what is unsayable (Glissant, 2000: 140)]: writing as a resistant and opaque signifying form, not founded on a compromised reality, but capable of recreating a lost link, of bringing the trace to life.

Glissant understands himself through Faulkner's modernism, which he perceives as a deconstructive undertaking that is in fact an intentionally impossible act of historical reconstruction. It is only effective because of its repeated failure, for example in Absalom! and Go Down Moses, where writing, equipped with the full modernist toolkit, is made to serve an impossible archeological endeavour, always striving to work further back towards a tragic presupposition that nevertheless remains unknown ‘parce que ce présupposé est à jamais insu, l'écriture, techniquement, se rassemblera en une série d'approches dont aucune ne conclut et dont le tout porte au vertige de l'inconnaissable’ (Glissant, 1996: 195) [because this presupposition will never be known, the writing juggles a series of technical approaches, none of which reaches a conclusion and all of which spin into vertigo’ (Glissant, 2000: 142)]. This dark side draws the reader in and generates the intangible quality of Faulkner's work, being none other than the hidden element of true suffering already apparent in other ways. Literature has no choice but to confront this unknown: ‘le caché nous fait mieux ressentir le dévoilé ou le révélé. C'est “ce qu'on ne comprend pas” qui dans l'oeuvre nous aide à approcher la masse sombre et lumineuse de ce que nous croyons avoir compris’ (Glissant, 1996: 195) [What is hidden makes us feel what is disclosed or revealed all the more strongly. […] it is ‘what we don't understand’ that helps us approach the dark and luminous mass of what we think we have understood (Glissant, 2000: 142)]. Glissant sets out a new poetics and offers his readers fresh knowledge and it is in this that both the risk and the challenge of his work are to be found. While Glissant pursues Faulkner's modernist project and while the latter allows us a greater understanding of the complexities and the issues at stake in Glissant's own work, this is because he uproots Faulkner's work from the atavistic tradition imposed on it by the critics, and, in doing so, redeems it. In his book, he chooses to approach Faulkner from an aesthetic point of view, despite his awareness of Faulkner's failings and because of his knowledge of how to expose them. He sets this essential question aside but does not deny its existence: ‘la littérature prévaut sur le témoignage ou la prise de position, non parce qu'elle excède toute appréciation du réel, mais parce qu'elle en est l'approche la plus approfondie, la seule qui vaille finalement’ (Glissant, 1996: 92) [literature matters more than making testimonies or taking sides, not because it exceeds all possible appreciation of the real, but because it is a (p.210) more profound approach and, ultimately, the only one that matters’ (Glissant, 2000: 64)]. Modernist literature does not disengage itself from reality nor does it cravenly abdicate responsibility when faced with the judgement of history: on the contrary, the whole of Glissant's book attempts to show that Faulkner's work orbits the abyss of the unsayable, which nevertheless leaves behind an indelible mark. Glissant's lucid analysis of Faulkner's atavistic racism offers no excuse for the latter but he refuses to condemn his work, seeing in it a chance of hope, an authenticity guaranteed by the suffering which it uncompromisingly allows to appear in all its nakedness, and by its capacity to ‘negate’ an unjust reality which still endures: ‘l'oeuvre de Faulkner mesure ce qu'il faudra de renversement dans les sensibilités avant que les nouveaux rapports, le nouveau vécu de la Relation, soient rendus délibérés. Ce renversement, l'oeuvre de Faulkner y travaille, non par leçon de morale, mais par changer nos poétiques’ (Glissant, 1996: 134) [[Faulkner's work] measures what reversals must occur in sensibilities before new alliances – the new experience of the Relation – can become deliberate. Faulkner's work struggles toward this change of direction, not through moral lessons, but by changing our poetics’ (Glissant, 2000: 95–96)].

Ultimately, in his own particular dynamics of reversal, it is thus Glissant who puts Faulkner to the test. That this should involve so much opacity and so many obvious differences between the two writers is necessary: Glissant continues here, and no doubt concludes, the task he embarked on thirty years earlier in his Intention poétique, another revolutionary critical work, probably rivalled in the French language only by the critical works of Blanchot, Bonnefoy and Deguy.18 What is more, Glissant, in this book, re-evaluates aesthetics, transforming the modernist aesthetic and opening it up from within, freeing it of its atavistic content and proposing it as a new aesthetic which could be described as postcolonial.

In Faulkner, Mississippi, Glissant provides us with the tools to enter his own work whose opacity guarantees its resistance to appropriative readings. This resistance is that of language, reconstructed between the lines of ‘official’ (p.211) language in La Lézarde, for example, where the multiple and complex voice of the narrator – ‘j'entends l'ivresse du temps passé […] mais les mots n'achèvent jamais de mourir, la rivière jamais n'achève de porter les terres vers la mer’ (Glissant, 1958: 244) [I still hear the wild rejoicing of bygone days […] But the words never finish dying; the river never ceases to carry its burden of earth towards the sea’ (The Ripening: 1985: 180)] – repeats Addie Bundren's litany against words from As I Lay Dying (Faulkner, 1930), reformulating it, reinvesting the fallen words with their haunting power, their ability to preserve and bear traces.19 Or again, in the modulation and shifting of the narrative voices of Absalom! in his Quatrième Siècle, where Mathieu Béluse's constant interjections: ‘mais tu vas trop vite’ (Glissant, 1964: 213) [But you're going too fast (Glissant, 2001: 215)] merge into the ‘touchers de conscience’ (Glissant, 1996: 283) [strokes of consciousness (Glissant, 2000: 206)] of interior monologue: ‘nous sentons que nous sommes trop légers sous ce poids [le passé], et pour remplir notre présence nous sommes trop vides dans cette absence, cet oubli’ (Glissant, 1964: 58) [we feel that beneath this weight [of the past] we are too flimsy, and we are too empty in this absence, and forgetting to fill our presence’ (The Fourth Century: 2001: 51)], Glissant quite simply creates the resonances of Relation, rendering concepts of influence and atavistic literary tradition obsolete.20 Ludic relationships are in no way excluded from this process (to which we should add the restorative function of humour in both writers), so long as the need to follow the trail of the trace and Mycéa's voice, ever enigmatic and ungovernable, enchanted and enchanting, remain the ethical benchmarks, the only true concern of Glissant's imaginary creation.

For as long as aesthetics continues to pursue the enigma of the trace, with the poetics of Relation as the practical manifestation of this quest, writing is protected from the risk of becoming monumentalized and ceasing to (p.212) communicate, becoming a trace in its turn. It is indeed this ‘trace-mémoire’ [memory trace], to borrow Chamoiseau's term (Chamoiseau and Hammadi, 1994), which appears in Absalom! where we encounter an important definition of History framed, not in terms of documents and monuments, but as an evanescent trace.

And so maybe if you could go to someone, the stranger the better, and give them something, anything, it not to mean anything in itself and them not even to read or keep it, not even bother to throw it away or destroy it, at least it would be something just because it would have happened, be remembered even if only from passing from one hand to another, one mind to another, and it would be at least a scratch, something, something that might make a mark on something that was once for the reason that it can die someday, while the block of stone can't be is because it never can become was because it can't ever die or perish. (Faulkner, 1976: 105–06)

And Mycéa replies to this Faulknerian injunction in the clausula of Faulkner, Mississippi, where her voice blends dialogically with that of Glissant, inverting Beckett as it does so: ‘non pas démontrer ni justifier, approcher tout au plus. Mais oui, dit-elle, la meilleure [approche] à jamais, la meilleure chaque fois’ (Glissant, 1996: 347) [neither prove nor justify. The best you can do is reach an approximation. But, yes, she says, forever the best [approach], the best each time (Glissant, 2000: 256)].

Translated by Teresa Bridgeman.

Works Cited

Bibliography references:

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(1) I would like to thank Marion Schmid for the many improvements she has made to this chapter. Thank you also to Celia Britton, Teresa Bridgeman, Michael Wiedorn, J. Michael Dash, Jean-Pascal Pouzet, Bernadette Cailler and Jean-Luc Tamby, all of whom have enriched my approach to Glissant and Faulkner through fruitful exchanges.

(2) Where a published translation of Glissant's work exists, this is cited, with references. Where no references are provided, no published translation is available and the translation is the work of the translator of this chapter.

(3) This moment of distancing (going further than Faulkner in its (re)vision of character, which, like the narrative voice, is now truly scattered to the winds, disappearing into a landscape which has become the only true vehicle for narration) would in its turn disappear in an intriguing swing of the pendulum (between mimeticism and detachment). A close examination of the form and structure of Ormerod (Glissant, 2003) reveals that it follows the formal and typographical structures of Faulkner's greatest books: long sentences, almost without punctuation, their rhythms governed by simple indents, for example in the section entitled ‘Les Gros Mornes’ (Glissant 2003: 220–44), which itself immediately calls to mind ‘The Bear’ in Go Down Moses and ‘The Courthouse’ in Requiem for a Nun; juxtapositions of different time frames; italics which signal shifts to embedded levels of consciousness and temporal frames (Romano, 2005: 7). And while Tout-monde might at first glance appear to be Glissant's attempt to write the epic of a world diametrically opposed to Faulkner's universe, we only have to remind ourselves of that other unique attempt to write on a universal scale, Faulkner's great diasporic work, A Fable (1954), in which a Creole character, prophet of a humanity yet to come, is given the name Tooleyman (tout-le-monde [everyone/all the world]).

(4) ‘This novelist, who could also be said to have glided off into poetry, attempted to trace out and reveal his characters through landscape (with him we lose our belief in those characters in the novel who thrust themselves upon us and in the author's artifices: in trick descriptions which attempt to present some character without really filling in the details of his portrait, along the lines of “not-just-but” rather than “certain-not-perhaps”, in implied dialogues which produce gradual revelations and leave so much to the imagination […]).’ See also Glissant, 1993: 193 on the question of ‘non pas seulement mais’ [not-just-but].

(5) See also the section ‘rêve d'une autre Amérique’ [dream of another America] in Tout-monde (Glissant, 1993: 515–22).

(6) There is a connection to be made between Glissant's redefinition (not confusion) of genres (lyric, epic and dramatic) and the work of Emil Staiger in Basic Concepts of Poetics (Staiger, 1991). The latter has been very influential in France and rethinks genres ‘not as essences but as versions of ongoing processes of foundational human experience and thus as versions of concrete historical existence’ (ibid.: 30). Staiger accordingly associates the epic genre ‘with its disclosure of the moment-of-vision, or bringing the phenomenal world into unconcealment, a disclosure that is primarily present-oriented’, while the lyric genre is associated with the past and drama with the future (ibid.: 33). For Glissant, the epic is not an a priori and immutable form, but is more fundamentally a means to reveal a coming-into-awareness, a movement towards consciousness, to which can be added the other preponderant temporalities constituted by the lyric (the past, the having-been) and drama (the future, the being-who-becomes).

(7) ‘She tells me frankly as I was thinking out loud that I am speaking nonsense. Oh! No, she says – she does not want to appear in this book I am writing. [… ] I tell her that a pronoun has power even when you do not know who is behind it. Some argue that “she” is Mycea, “the one with whom the poet is enchanted”. Others deduce an imaginary identity, if this interests them, perhaps a synthesis of several elements at their command. […] She tells me not to work like that, needlessly, and not to construct my Faulkner out of this pronoun which, after all, is hers’ (Glissant, 2000: 176–77).

(8) Since the time of Mallarmé, Valéry and Reverdy, poetics has been integral to poetry: not a system of codes, but ‘poetic thought, reflection on its foundations’ (Rueff, 2009). Glissant joins this tradition of poetic thought on poetry, which he diverts and decentres, subsuming it to the category of aesthetics. Glissant takes his idea of aesthetics from Reverdy (via Hegel) and repoliticizes it, ‘particularizes’ it, jolting it out of its still-rigid patterns. The above are clear stages in Glissant's thought on literary creation over the past forty years, which has continuously evolved in both direction and scope, always in ‘unpredictable’ ways.

(9) This ‘setting-in-relation’ has led to a new concept of comparative literature, shifting it from its habitual paths (see Bassnett, 2006; Spivak, 2003; et al.). Indeed, the poetics of Relation (of which translation is a cornerstone) is itself redemptive in nature, redefining comparative literature and providing it with a profoundly political and aesthetic dimension which it previously lacked. Nor is this a mere reversal of perspectives (passing from the viewpoint of the ‘dominator’ to that of the ‘subaltern’). Instead, it teases out the darker side of literature, which is in fact the means by which it brings light into the world: Glissant's concept of Relation comprehensively revisits the very grounds on which we evaluate and compare literatures. The poetics of Relation sets out a methodological basis for the comparative analysis of literary texts (resembling the global literary anthology assembled by Glissant (2010)). It is a comparative literature that has finally attained adulthood, self-generated and awaiting regeneration, brought up to date in the age of the tout-monde.

(10) Patrick Chamoiseau returns to this subject in Un dimanche au cachot where Faulkner and Glissant figure among the ranks of great authors. He makes the following remark on the non-anxiety of influence: ‘que si Faulkner l'a déjà fait, cela ne sert à rien de le refaire […] que Cervantès, Joyce, Faulkner, Perse, Césaire, Glissant […] nous ont ouvert des portes, [qui] […] sont reliées entre elles, se relatent sans fin, et qu'un trésor baille à leurs entrecroisements’ [that if Faulkner has already done it there is no point in doing it again […] that Cervantes, Joyce, Faulkner, Perse, Césaire, Glissant […] have opened the doors for us, [which] […] are interconnecting, constantly leading to each other, and that a treasure is spilling out at their points of intersection] (Chamoiseau, 2007: 267–68). I am very grateful to Bernadette Cailler for having brought this text to my attention.

(11) Faulkner, Mississippi does not itself belong to any stable genre: it is at once a travel diary, literary criticism, semi-fiction (with the intrusion of Mycéa, who is the chief interlocutor in the book and who also provides its ‘ethical’ voice, keeping a close eye on Glissant's intellectual and, some might say, already over-academic reasonings).

(12) A number of significant books and articles have reinstated the link between postcolonial literature, modernism and aesthetics severed by the postmodernist drive of the 1990s: Lazarus, 1986; Gikandi, 1992; Quayson, 1999; and Nesbitt, 2003. It is also worth remembering the confusion which arises in many critical works between various modernist and avant-garde projects. Nor should we forget that it is only as a result of the work of Jacques Rancière (2004) that the term ‘modernism’ has come to be used in French in a way broadly similar to the English understanding of the term. To include Yeats and Joyce, Césaire and Reverdy in the same category, for example, is to disregard the differences between their aesthetic (and political) projects.

(13) For an excellent analysis of the relationship between Adorno and postcolonial theory, see Bahri, 2003. On the role of the Negator in Glissant, see Cailler, 1988; Britton, 1999; and Chancé, 2002. For a lucid analysis of Adorno, see Jarvis, 1998 and Zuidervaart, 1991.

(14) The artist is the figure who proclaims that ‘something’ is missing in the artificial happiness promoted by the culture industry, the Aber Etwas fehlt, which can be heard in Brecht and Weil's dystopian opera Mahagonny (a possible source for Glissant's Mahagony?), opening up an abyss that offers salvation, the possibility of a ‘true’ happiness. There is a link to be made between Glissant's concept of Utopia and that established by Ernst Bloch in The Principle of Hope (Bloch, 1995), and both resemble those of Benjamin, Adorno and, more recently, Ricoeur. For an overview of these theories, known as ‘concrete’ or ‘negative’ Utopias, see Europe 949, 2008. Ideas such as Benjamin's theory of History, the role of myth, the process of demythification, the relationship of myth with historical time and the community (in Benjamin and Adorno), the dichotomy of oral storytelling and the novel and, most of all, the new community/language which art still has the capacity to bring forth, can all be related profitably to Glissant.

(15) See Celia Britton's chapter on Faulkner in this volume, which refers to the essential characteristic of Faulkner's deferred writing: preterition or paralipsis, ‘dire sans dire tout en disant’ (Glissant, 2008: 63; 2009: 156) [saying without saying while saying].

(16) In his contribution to the Florida conference of February 2010, Michael Wiedorn judiciously pointed out that Glissant reads Faulkner in French, a situation with implications for the dilution of Faulkner's style: in fact, Faulkner, like Joyce, was fortunate enough to have excellent translators (Michel Gresset, François Pitavy) whose work came close to the originality of his style (translating ‘wilderness’ as ‘brousse’, for example). We should also remember Glissant's comments on translation as an operative function of the poetics of Relation in his various essays – in particular, Glissant, 1990.

(17) On the concept of knowledge and non-knowledge (inspired by Bataille), see Weinstein, 2006.

(18) Despite the importance of Glissant's works, and despite the recent efforts of the Institut du Tout-monde, little attention has been paid to Glissant in French poetic and academic circles. Although remarkable, the poetry internet site created by Jean-Michel Maulpoix (www.maulpoix.net) nowhere mentions Glissant, and the same is true of Martin Rueff's theoretical work which brilliantly retraces the past forty years of poetic creativity in France through reference to the work of Deguy (Rueff, 2009). Very few French theorists of poetry have followed the example set by Michel Collot in his detailed examination of Glissant's poetry.

(19) ‘I learned that words are no good; that words don't ever fit even what they are trying to say […] I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack […] I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it’ (Faulkner, 1955 [1930]: 92–93).

(20) The rhythm created by Faulkner for Quentin and Shreve's breathless and breathy double narration in Chapter 7 of Absalom! (Shreve's ‘get on with it's ‘get on now's and ‘go on's, which are echoed by Quentin's ‘Wait's ‘Wait, I tell you!'s), is also employed again by Artémise and Mathieu in Tout-monde: ‘Tout ça va trop vite […] Attendez rien qu'un peu’; ‘Attendez attendez’ (Glissant, 1993: 211); ‘Tout ça va trop vite’ (ibid.: 223) [It's all going too fast […] Wait just a little bit; Wait wait; It's all going too fast].ça va trop vite’ ((ibid.: 223) [It's all going too fast […] Wait just a little bit; Wait wait; It's all going too fast].