Politics the only common ground

by Eric Brandom

Le congrès des ecrivains et artistes noirs took place in late September 1956, in Paris. Among the speakers was Aimé Césaire, and it is his intervention, “Culture and Colonization,” that is my focus here. This text has been the subject of significant scholarship. Like all of Césaire’s writings it is nonetheless worth reading carefully anew. I look to Césaire now in part to think through the differences between two attempts to take or retake a dialectical tradition for anticolonial politics. How might such a project take shape in and against specifically French political thought? In this post, I hope one unusual moment in Césaire’s talk can be useful.

Put broadly, for Césaire, the problem of culture in 1956 was colonization. By disintegrating, or attempting to disintegrate, the peoples over which it has domination, colonization removes the “framework…structure” that make cultural life possible. And it must be so, because colonization means political control and “the political organization freely developed by a people is a prominent part of that people’s culture, even as it also conditions that culture” (131). Peoples and nations, must be free because this is the condition of true living–having already made this argument with quotations from Marx, Hegel, and Lenin, Césaire next gave his listeners Spengler quoting Goethe. There was a politics to these citations. At issue here was Goethe’s vitalist point, from the heart of “European” culture, “that living must itself unfold.” This was contrary to Roger Caillois (also an object of enmity in the earlier Discourse) and others who “list…benefits” (132) of colonization. One might have “good intentions,” and yet: “there is not one bad colonization…and another…enlightened colonization…One has to take a side” (133).

On an earlier day of the conference Hubert Deschamps, a former colonial governor turned academic, had asked to say a few words from his chair. Inaudible, he had been allowed to ascend to the podium, and had then given a longer-than-expected ‘impromptu’ speech. Deschamps seems to have offered a limited defense of colonization on the basis of the ultimate historical good of the colonization “we French”—the Gauls—experienced by the Romans. Responding the next day Césaire plucked from his memory a pro-imperial Latin quatrain written in fifth century Gaul by Rutilius Namatianus, ending “Urbem fecisti quod prius orbis erat” (“thou hast made a city of what was erstwhile a world”). I pause over this performance of total cultural mastery for two reasons. First, this comparison of ancient and modern imperialism was more powerful for the French than one might think and second, Césaire was surprisingly ambivalent. He notes that both Deschamps and Namatianus come from the ruling group, so naturally see things positively. Of course like the modern French empire, Roman empire did mean the destruction of indigenous culture—and yet Césaire commented that “we may note in passing that the modern colonialist order has never inspired a poet” (134). It seems to me that Césaire was not without sympathy for the idea of the “Urbs,” but recognized its impossibility.

Culture cannot be “mixed [métisse]”, it is a harmony, a style (138). It develops—here Césaire is perhaps as Comtean as Nietzschean—in periods of “psychological unity…of communion” (139). The different origins, the hodgepodge, that results in anarchy is not a matter of physical origins, but of experience: in culture “the rule…is heterogeneity. But be careful: this heterogeneity is not lived as such. In the reality of a living civilization it is a matter of heterogeneity lived internally as homogeneity” (139). This cannot happen in colonialism. The result of the denial of freedom, of “the historical initiative” is that “the dialectic of need” cannot unfold in colonized countries. Quoting again from Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, Césaire compares the result of colonialism for the colonized to Nietzsche’s “concept-quake caused by science” that “robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security” (140). Colonialism denies its victims the capacity to constitute from the people a collective subject capable of taking action on the stage of the world. From this failed subjectification, everything else flows. In colonized countries, culture is in a “tragic” position. Real culture has withered and dies or is dead. What remains is an artificial “subculture” condemned to marginal “elites” (Césaire puts the word in quotes), and in fact “vast territories of culturally empty zones…of cultural perversion or cultural by-products” (140).

What, Césaire asks, is to be done? This is the question presented by the “situation that we black men of culture must have the courage to face squarely” (140). Césaire rejects the summary choice between “indigenous” or “European”: “fidelity and backwardness, or progress and rupture” (141). This opposition must be overcome, Césaire maintains, through the dialectical action of a people. Césaire’s language itself contains the fidelity and rupture he will no longer accept as alternatives: “I believe that in the African culture yet to be born…” (141). There will be no general destruction of the symbols of the past, nor a blind imposition of what comes from Europe. “In our culture that is to be born…there will be old and new. Which new elements? Which old elements?…The answer can only be given by the community” (142). But if the individuals present before Césaire in Paris—including among other luminaries his former student Fanon and old friend Senghor, as well as Jean Price-Mars, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright—cannot say what the answer will be, “at least we can confirm here and now that it will be given and not verbally but by facts and in action” (142). Thus “our own role as black men of culture” is not to be the redeemer, but rather “to proclaim the coming and prepare the way” for “the people, our people, freed from their shackles” (142). The people is a “demiurge that alone can organize this chaos into a new synthesis…We are here to say and demand: Let the peoples speak. Let the black peoples come onto the great stage of history” (142).

Baldwin, listening to Césaire, was “stirred in a very strange and disagreeable way” (157). His assessment of Césaire is critical:

Césaire’s speech left out of account one of the great effects of the colonial experience: its creation, precisely, of men like himself. His real relation to the people who thronged about him now had been changed, by this experience, into something very different from what it once had been. What made him so attractive now was the fact that he, without having ceased to be one of them, yet seemed to move with the European authority. He had penetrated into the heart of the great wilderness which was Europe and stolen the sacred fire. And this, which was the promise of their freedom, was also the assurance of his power. (158)

Political subjectivity, popularly constructed, is the necessary ground for cultural life–this was Césaire’s conclusion. Baldwin was not wrong to see in Césaire’s performance a certain implied political and cultural elitism. Here we can usefully return to Césaire’s great poem, the Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.

A. James Arnold, editor of the new critical edition of Césaire’s writings, there argues that the 1939 first version of the poem is essentially a lyric account of individual subjectivity. Arnold further argues, and Christopher Miller sharply disagrees, that the first version of the poem is superior, that subsequent versions (in 1947 and 1956) warp the form of the original with socio-political encrustations. Gary Wilder, in the first of his pair of essential books, reads the poem in terms of voice and subjectivity, seeing in it ultimately a failure. What began as critique ends with “a decontextualized and existentialist account of unalienated identity and metaphysical arrival” (288). Looking at Césaire’s attention in 1956 to the poetry of empire, his evident sympathy even in the face of Deschamps’ condescension for the Urbs, impossible though it be in the modern world, we may read the poem differently. Taken together with, for instance, Césaire’s appreciation for and active dissemination of Charles Péguy’s mystical republican poetry in Tropiques, we might see the subjectivity the poem dramatizes as essentially collective, and its project as the activation, the uprising, of this collectivity. It seems to me that we can read the shape of the dilemmas that Césaire confronted in the 1956 talk–between elite and people, decision and growth, culture and civilization, nation and diaspora–at least partly as the pursuit even at this late date, of an impossible republicanism.

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