Homme du tout-monde

By J. Michael Dash

Édouard Glissant, 1928–2011

Edouard Glissant

I first met Édouard Glissant in 1985 in Paris, when he was editor of the UNESCO Courier. I had just completed the translation of his first novel, La lézarde (1958). In English, the novel is called The Ripening, and as the years went by the title seemed prophetic, as our friendship could be seen as an intellectual ripening. For the last twenty-one years, we would meet every December to award the Prix Carbet, which he founded in 1990. Following his suggestion, the second of his works I translated was his dauntingly complex and lengthy book of essays Le discours antillais (1981). I could have called the translation “Antillean Discourse”, fixing it squarely in the context of the French Antilles. This was not, however, a book just about France’s overseas departments in the Americas. It was about the entire region, and its relation to the hemisphere. So the title in English is Caribbean Discourse (1989).

Glissant opens this monumental book with the bold declaration, “Martinique is not a Polynesian island.” In so doing, he insists on the importance of Martinique’s specificity. Glissant’s entire oeuvre can be read as an attempt to grasp the complex reality of the Caribbean within the world. From the late 1950s, in La lézarde, Glissant advanced two related, pathbreaking ideas regarding Caribbean reality. His ideas were radically different from the racial poetics of his predecessor Aimé Césaire and the revolutionary politics of his near contemporary Frantz Fanon. During a period of fiercely anti-colonial, nationalist agitation, Glissant felt that landscape needed to be seen as existential space, a space that could be grasped only through the imagination, and one which produced its own kind of language. This language did not coincide completely with the language spoken in a particular location, just as the landscape did not always coincide completely with the geographical surface of any given island.

The second idea was that Caribbean space was essentially archipelagic, in that the meaning of a single island could not be grasped without a sense of the whole. Place did not exist without space, nor an object without its horizon. So the significance of any entity within the archipelago was always in its field of relations. As the characters in La lézarde learn, their individual lives have no meaning without the group. Despite the group’s politics, the true protagonist of the novel is the land itself, and its full meaning forever eludes them.

More than Césaire and Fanon, Glissant felt that his was a Caribbean poetics. Despite language differences, he felt that he shared the same imaginary with Alejo Carpentier, Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, C.L.R. James, and St-John Perse, as well as the artists Wifredo Lam and Agustín Cárdenas. Glissant’s last book is an anthology of poems titled The Earth, Fire, Water, and Winds (La terre, le feu, l’eau, et les vents, 2010), which ends with the Jamaican Michael Smith’s “Me Cyaan Believe It”. He was particularly drawn to Brathwaite’s wonderful formulation, “The unity is submarine.” Glissant’s view of Caribbean history is deeply influenced by this image of submarine convergence, of submarine roots floating free: “not fixed in one position in some primordial spot, but extending in all directions in our world through its network of branches.” The Caribbean is, therefore, nothing but contact, more synchronic than diachronic, more submerged than on the surface. At Carifesta 1976 in Jamaica, he felt for a while that this “submarine unity” had surfaced. Haiti was the new Caribbean motherland; Cuba’s Moncada reminded us of Guadeloupe’s Matouba; and Toussaint L’Ouverture, José Martí, Simón Bolívar, Benito Juárez, and Marcus Garvey were the region’s heroes. This was a vision of antillanité fleetingly come to life.

Caribbean Discourse, then, is a thoroughgoing effort to explore and not systematise his “arc-en-mer,” a play on the French word for the rainbow. Glissant repeatedly asserted that place was uncircumventable (incontournable). He meant you could not ignore it, nor could its contours ever be explained. Place could not be turned into territory, because it only existed in terms of its horizon. Islands always connected with other islands: their meaning is deferred by this chain of succession. It was precisely the inability to restore historical continuities or to assume the smug assurance and insularity of continental masses that represented for Glissant the Caribbean’s potential to establish new transversal connections, and be a model for the non-polarised postcolonial world to come. In this regard, Caribbean Discourse repeatedly sounds a note of hope, as Glissant declares on more than one occasion: “I believe in the future of small countries.”

Much has been made by critics of an apparent shift in Glissant’s perspective in the past two decades, from local concerns to global ones, from political engagement to apolitical abstraction. Starting in the late 1980s, he took up teaching positions in the United States and became more of a theorist and world traveller. Nevertheless, this hypothesis does not stand up to close scrutiny, since as early as 1956, in the travel journal Sun of Consciousness (Soleil de la conscience), Glissant dramatised the ambiguities and tensions of individual identity in terms of a finite world where there is nothing left to explore in the conventional sense. Voyages of discovery were no longer possible, since there are no “elsewheres” left, because — as Glissant presciently observed — “we are all gathered on the same shore.” The sun of consciousness of the title sheds light on the impossibility of absolute difference in a world which has destabilised the nativist oppositions of home and exile, centre and periphery, authenticity and alienation.

Otherness was essential to understanding identity. Glissant felt that the composite cultures of the Caribbean were exemplary. Instead of the atavistic urge to turn inwards, to refuse the other, the other held the secret to understanding who you were. “The other is in me because I am me. Similarly, the I from whom the Other is absent will perish.” Glissant, furthermore, saw this rethinking of otherness as at least as important as political and social activism. In his Introduction to a Poetics of Diversity (Introduction à une poétique du divers, 1996), he saw that the need existed “to open each individual’s imaginary to something else, which means that we will change nothing in the situation of the peoples of the world, if we do not change the belief that identity must be rooted, fixed, exclusive, and unaccommodating.”

In the same way that terms such as antillanité, opacité, rhizome, and relation were associated with Glissant’s early work, the terms tout-monde and chaos-monde are key to his writing in his last two decades. They are the product of a utopian thrust in Glissant’s later work. He had a special definition of utopia: “utopia is not a dream. It is what is missing in the world.” Consequently, he envisaged the tout-monde as the horizon of the chaotic world we inhabit. It is no coincidence that he called his penultimate book of essays A New Region of the World (Une nouvelle région du monde, 2006), as it speaks directly to the importance of recognising other worlds that impinge on our own. Literature had to change to reflect the global, if it were to do more than entertain. Glissant never forgot in his vision of the tout-monde the example of Caribbean space. In his Treatise on the Tout-Monde (Traité du tout-monde, 1997) he foresaw that “regions of the world [would] become islands, isthmuses, peninsulas, lands thrusting out, mixing and connecting and yet which endure.”

Glissant’s entire oeuvre is an archipelago of novels, poetry, and essays, all like a series of inter-related islands. He ended Caribbean Discourse by directly addressing the reader in a sentence that could be appended to his life and career:

If the reader has followed this work up to this point, I would wish that through the tangle of my approaches to Caribbean reality he managed to catch the sound of this voice rising from unsuspected places; yes, that he really heard it.

As much as anything else, Glissant taught us to listen more carefully. Despite his leaving us on 3 February, 2011, his voice, as compelling as it ever was, still speaks to us.


The Caribbean Review of Books, January 2011

J. Michael Dash, a Trinidadian, is professor of French at New York University. He has written on Haiti and Édouard Glissant. His most recent book is Culture and Customs of Haiti (2001).