Black Surrealism and Rooting in the Literature of the Antilles

Salvador San Juan

“... the hungry Antilles, the Antilles pitted with smallpox, the Antilles dynamited by alcohol, stranded in the mud of this bay, in the dust of this town sinisterly stranded.” Aimé Césaire, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.

If the readers take a few moments to run their eyes over a map of Latin America, they will find some interesting surprises. The francophone Caribbean string of the Antilles, for example, stands out as a bastion of art which presents an abundant literary mosaic, strongly rooted in the independence movements of the region. An example of this is the Martinican poet and politician Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), who was to become mayor of Fort de France—the capital of Martinique—at the climax of the Second World War. Years earlier, Césaire had published the “Cahier”, the Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, a work which may be considered a diagnostic—and even programmatic—text on Antillean sociocultural reality in the early twentieth century: diagnostic because it uncovers the severe shortcomings of an environment extremely hostile to the development of Afro-Antillean culture; programmatic because it explores, through a series of formal propositions, methods of approaching a revolution, oriented from the artistic and seeking to lay its foundations in the social uprising of the black population suppressed by dependence upon the French Empire.

Born in the French colony of Martinique in 1913, Aimé Césaire grew up in an environment troubled by clear French ethnocentrism, in which the native population faced a desperate struggle to survive, even living in slave-like conditions. This was the context in which Césaire emigrated to Paris in 1932 on a scholarship for higher education. In the then intellectual capital of Europe, his knowledge of Martinican culture drew interest from various literary and artistic movements strongly influential to his work, which would go on to acquire surrealist nuances that would portray his eagerness for emancipated literature.

Fighting against the colonial operations of the French Empire, Césaire carried out work that was fundamental for Martinican literature—work which probably would not have had such a broad impact without the support of authors of the stature of André Breton and Jean-Paul Sartre. In his widely known preface to Frantz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961, Jean-Paul Sartre said “Not so very long ago, the earth numbered two thousand million inhabitants: five hundred million men, and one thousand five hundred million natives. The former had the Word; the others had the use of it.” Aimé Césaire, as had his student Frantz Fanon, made use of the “Word” and decisively took possession of it.

Césaire embodied his own esthetic movement, adhering to codes related to the cultural needs and aspirations of his country, opposed to foreign impositions. The slow but growing artistic independence of Latin American countries was directly linked to a break in the chain of dependence created by insatiable cultural models, such as the French one. Césaire personified the artistic movement aimed at reforming the oppressed Martinique, constituting the kind of ideological undertaking aimed at restoring social values to the Caribbean island. Césaire, Léopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal (Césaire’s sponsor in Paris) and the Guianese Léon-Gontran Damas, together sought a sign of identity belonging to their respective countries.

The validity of the Antillean artistic models is separate from colonial paralysis; we find the use of roots as a subject, as an image, becoming a metaphor for an overriding need for one’s own base:

From staring too long at trees I have become
a tree and my long tree
feet have dug in the ground large
venom sacs high cities of bone (...)

The poet himself has taken root in the ground. His feet are tree feet; his figure is presented as that of a tree. In this passage can be seen the issue of rooting for the black man, as a link between his humanity and the land to which he belongs, for which Césaire fights through his poetry. The image of the black man wishing to stand on his feet is expressed through the figure of a tree, one of the Martinican poet’s natural symbols. The quintessential representative element is that of the black man held up high, an image transformed into a tree, “an organism of growth” (Ollé Laprune), offering its fruit:

You know that it is not from hatred of other races
that I demand of myself to become a hoer for this unique race
that what I want is for universal hunger
for universal thirst

to summon it to generate, free at last,
from its intimate closeness
the succulence of fruit.

The poet urges this universal hunger and thirst to bring forth, like a fruit from the most intimate depths, the ability to produce, to create; in short, going against the grain of the sterility, of the aridness to which the black race is pushed (“and the Negro every day more base, more cowardly, more sterile, less profound” ), the poet perceives an ability that is inherent in the subject, the ability to generate opulence from absence itself, from universal hunger.

A plunge into Africa

Regarding black surrealism, it has been mentioned that Césaire’s time in Europe had a notable impact on his poetry. The surrealist movement offered a particularly valuable space for the black poet in which to express his deepest views, aspects which would go on to be expressed in the Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. In an interview with Aimé Césaire by Sonia Aratán in 1968, on the occasion of the Cultural Congress of Havana, Aratán put to him the idea of surrealism as a “mobilisation of deep forces in the creative process.” Césaire responded that he had always conceived surrealism as a “yearning for liberation.” On the subject of the surrealist movement, the Martinican declared: “It is the first poetic movement that has decisively highlighted (...) the importance of the deep forces of being in order to reach, together with a personal, individual liberation, a total, collective liberation.”

Césaire explained that the main tools of social liberation are to be found in exploring the most intimate regions of oneself. Thus it goes from being one’s own, individual revolution to a collective one.

In another interview given by Césaire to René Depestre, faced with the question of surrealism the Martinican tested out a more complete answer. Césaire said that in surrealism he found forms to explode the French language: “It was an instrument to blow apart French. It made everything jump, it literally shook everything. This was very important because the traditional forms, the cumbersome forms, as they were, were crushing me.” Accepting his situation as a French speaker, Césaire operated through surrealism to rupture artistic conventions.

Removing the bothersome barriers imposed upon him by traditional forms, he saw in surrealism, in his own words, “an element of liberation.” Césaire transformed language, attacking logical forms and common rhythms and incorporating lexical choices from the folklore of Martinique - making translation difficult and thus accentuating its belonging.

The importance for Aimé Césaire of surrealism in this return to black, African roots can be seen in the imagery of the Antillean poet, which calls on a primitive, ancestral, essential Africa. Césaire stated in his interview with René Depestre: “(...) it is true that we are French, we are marked by French habits (...) but if you break all that apart, if you go down to the depths, you will find the fundamental black man.

SALVADOR SAN JUAN is a literature teacher and journalist from Córdoba, Argentina. He also writes fiction, especially short stories, and has been published in different reviews of La Plata, Buenos Aires, such as Revista Tropos. His work as journalist includes political notes and cultural studies. Nowadays, San Juan is writing about Latin American literature.