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Édouard Glissant (1928-2011)


A French-Caribbean poet, novelist, and philosopher, who was frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature. Although Glissand's work mainly dealt with his native island of Martinique, its landscape, language, and identity of its people, his thought reached far beyond the Antilles and has had a strong relevance in the current postcolonial debate.

"We know ourselves as part and as crowd, in an unknown that does not terrify. We cry our cry of poetry. Our boats are open, and we sail them for everyone." (from Poetics of Relation, tr. Betsy Wing, 1990)

Édouard Glissant was born in 1928 in Sainte-Marie, Martinique, the son of a gireur a ganger who organized the workers who cut the cane. The island has been in French possession since 1816, its official language is French, but Creole is the language of the people. Little is known of Glissant's father; he tends to refer more often to his mother to whom he dedicated La Lézarde (1958, The Ripening). Glissant entered the best-known educational institution of the country, the Lycée Schoelcher in Fort-de-France, in 1939, later recalling the francophile excesses of the institution and the suppression of the Creole language and local culture. However, an exception was Aimé Césaire, a poet and founder of the Negritude Movement, a cause which sought to promote African culture free of colonial influences. Césaire had returned to Martinique in 1939 and was appointed to a post at the the Lycée Schoelcher, but Glissant was too young to attend his classes. Later Glissant joinded the "Franc-Jeu" movement which helped Césaire's campaign of 1945, when he was elected mayor of Fort-de-France.

In 1946 Glissant moved to France, where he studied history and philosophy at the Sorbonne and ethnology at the Musée de l'Homme. His friends included Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), his compatriot, whose writings have had a profound influence on civil rights, anti-colonial, and black consciousness movements around the world.

In Paris Glissant worked at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. In 1947 he started to contribute to Présence Africaine and from the early 1950s he participated widely in left-wing activities. With Paul Niger he founded the Front Antillo Guyanais, which agitated for the decolonization of French overseas departments. The group was dissolved by Charles De Gaulle in 1961; Glissant himself was kept under virtual house arrest and forbidden to return to Martinique. Glissant's ban was lifted in 1965.

After moving back to Martinique Glissant founded the Institut Martiniquais dÉtudes in 1967, an educational and cultural institution, and worked as its director. In 1971 he founded the quarterly review Acoma. Glissant returned to Paris in 1980, where he edited the UNESCO Newsletter. In 1988 he became a lecturer at Louisiana State University. From 1995 he taught literature at the City University of New York. President Jacques Chirac appointed Glissant in 2006 to form a committee that would do the preliminary work necessary for the foundation of a National Centre for the Memory of Slaveries and of their Abolitions. His report, Mémoires des esclavages, came out in 2007; the name of France's then-Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, is featured on the front cover. Glissant died in Paris, on February 3, 2011.

Glissant debuted as a poet in 1953 with Un champ d'îles. In his essays and theoretical studies, Glissant's topics varied from Eurocentric cultural imperialism to multilingualism and the creolization of cultures and values. For example, the epic poem Les Indes (1956, The Indies) retraced Columbus' voyage to America and its consequences. The slave trade, argued Glissant in Poetics of Relation (1990), caused the deterritorialization of African languages and contributed to creolization in the West. "This is the most completely known confrontation between the powers of the written word and the impulses of orality. The only written thing on slave ships was the account book listing the exchange value of slaves." Glissant saw that the clearest symbol of creolization is a creole language, open to multilingual influence. Thus the arrogant monolingual imperialism is challenged by the Tower of Babel. "Creolization carries in itself the adventure of multilingualism along with the extraordinary explosion of cultures."

In contrast to Césaire's culturally unifying concept of négritude, Glissant criticized "fake universality" and emphasized cultural fragmentation in the Caribbean. Struggling to come in terms with the fragmented heritage of Caribbean writers, Glissant replaced the monolingual concept of root-identity with the concept of the specific rhizome-identity (antillinité), which maintains the fact of rootedness but rejects the idea of a totalitarian root. Originally the metaphor of the rhizome was introduced by the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

The creole is at the same time "absolutely original" and growing like a rhizome without fixed roots the process is global. Glissant extended it from Caribbean and the Atlantic identity to embrace the tout-monde (whole world) of human interculturalism. In his second novel, Le Quatrième Siècle (1964, The Fourth Century), which won the Charles Veillon Prize, exemplified the idea through tracing the intertwined genealogies of two Martinican families to two enslaved Africans, duelling on board a slave ship. The Longou's are the fugitive slaves, and the Belouses, the plantation slaves, accept their fate.

Glissant's other important theoretical concepts include that of "relation" (la Relation), the nonhierarchial principle of unity, a relation of equality with and respect for the Other as different from oneself. "In Relation the whole is not the finality of its parts: for multiplicity in totality is totally diversity." In a global framework it is manifested in the relations between languages. Glissant rejected the need for a lingua franca. The opposition between spoken language (langage) and written language (langue) became a central issue in his writings in the 1970s. As an act of resistance from within the language, he also urged Antillian writers to break up the colonial French, and stated that it is absolutely necessary to violate the language at the written level. Relation is in constant movement; Glissant associated it with "chaos-world", a concept derived from scientific chaos theory.

In his novels Glissant's recorded the anticolonial revolt, liberation of Afro-Caribbeans, and the lost history of his country. In 1958 he was awarded the prestigious Renaudot Prize for the novel La Lézarde (The Ripening), about young revolutionaries and murder. The story, based on the events of 1945, follows the flow of the river Lézarde down from the hills to the sea, and at the same time records the journey of the hero, Thael, and his relationship with his surroundings. Thael is a member of a revolutionary group, his mission is to kill a traitor. The Fourth Century was the partial sequel of Le Lézarde.

Monsieur Toussaint (1961), drew on the life of Toussaint Louverture (1746-1803), the famous Haitian revolutionary leader, who has inspired a number of writers, among them Aimé Césaire. The original version of the work was not designated for a theatrical production, but its stage version was published in Acoma in 1978. Malemort (1975) was meant to shock and disorient with changing perspectives, drifting characters, violent shifts in style and backward narrative, looking for the mythical figure of Odono transported from Africa. Martinique is portrayed as the land of the happy malemorts, who are neither alive or dead. At the end "la bête longue" swallows one of the working class characters.

As a Martiniquan, Glissant became torn between two worlds: administratively the island is part of France, whereas geographically it belongs to the Caribbean region; the official language is French, but the vernacular is Creole. Resisting the notion of unique origins, Glissant regarded the Antillian's identity, culture and history primarily as a product of multiligualism and multiracialism. After visiting William Faulkner's home in Oxford, Mississippi, Glissant wrote: "Whatever attitude he adopts in his rapport with the Other and whatever global vision of the Other he had formed, the writer has no choice but to disturb this vision through his work, even after expressing it in the work. Because finally he must renounce indivisibility and terrifying unity." (from Faulkner, Mississippi, 1996)

For further reading: Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier, Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant by Barbara J. Webb (1992); Edouard Glissant by J. Michael Dash (1995); Edouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory: Strategies of Language and Resistance by Celia Britton (1999); Postcolonial Paradoxes in French Caribbean Writing: Césaire, Glissant, Condé by Jeannie Suk (2001)

Selected works:

  • Un Champ d'iles, 1953
  • La Terre inquiète, 1955
  • Soleil de la conscience, 1956
  • Les Indes, 1956- The Indes (tr. Dominique O'Neill)
  • La Lézarde, 1958 - The Ripening (tr. Frances Frenaye, 1959; J. Michael Dash, 1985)
  • Le Sel Noir, 1960 - Black Salt: Poems by Edouard Glissant (tr. Betsy Wing, 1999)
  • Le Sang rivé, 1961
  • Monsieur Toussaint, 1961 - Monsieur Toussaint (tr. Joseph G. Foster and Barbara Franklin, 1981) / Monsieur Toussaint: a Play (translated by J. Michael Dash with the author)
  • Le Quatrième Siècle, 1964 - The Fourth Century (tr. Betsy Wing, 2001)
  • Les Indes, un champ d'îles, La Terre inquiète, 1965
  • ed.: Mémoires de M. d'Artagnan, by Gatien de Courtilz, 1966
  • L'Intention poétique, 1969
  • Malemort, 1975
  • Boises, 1979
  • Le Discours antillais, 1981 - Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays (tr. J. Michael Dash, 1989)
  • La Case du commandeur, 1981
  • Edouard Glissant, 1982
  • Pays rêvé, pays réel, 1985
  • Mahagony, 1987
  • Poétique de la Relation, 1990 - Poetics of Relation (tr. Betsy Wing, 1997)
  • Fastes, 1991
  • Poèmes complets, 1994
  • Tout-Monde, 1995
  • Introduction à une poétique du divers, 1996
  • Faulkner, Mississippi, 1996 - Faulkner, Mississippi (tr. Barbara B. Lewis, Thomas C. Spear, 1999)
  • Traité du Tout-monde, 1997
  • Sartorius: le roman des Batoutos, 1999
  • Le Monde incréé, 2000
  • Ormerod, 2003
  • Collected Poems Of Edouard Glissant, 2005 (tr. Jeff Humphries, Melissa Manolas)
  • La cohée du Lamentin, 2005
  • Une nouvelle région du monde, 2006
  • Mémoires des esclavages, 2007
  • Quand les murs tombent. L'identité nationale hors-la-loi?, 2007 (with Patrick Chamoiseau).
  • La terre magnétique: les errances de Rapa Nui, lîle de Pâques, 2007 (with Sylvie Séma)
  • Miquel Barceló, 2007
  • L'intraitable beauté du monde. Adresse à Barack Obama, 2009 (with Patrick Chamoiseau)
  • Philosophie de la relation, 2009
  • La Terre le feu leau et les vents, 2010

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